Tony Corman. Courtesy: Tony Corman

In an era when Los Angeles tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Get Down crew can often be found playing huge music festivals, rousing audiences alongside pop, rock and hip hop stars, it might seem strange that a Southland address was long considered a serious liability in the world of jazz.

These days the LA jazz scene and all its attendant entertainment biz opportunities exerts a tractor-beam pull on musicians from around the country, but before the turn of the century, ambitious players tended to head the other direction, leaving Tinseltown for New York City, Boston or San Francisco. Few artists better exemplify the career costs exacted by life on the Left Coast than Harold Land, a brilliant tenor saxophonist and composer who from the mid-1950s to the 1990s contributed to some of jazz’s most influential and exciting sessions. 

Morchestra: Big Band Harold Land, Oct. 8, 8 p.m., California Jazz Conservatory

Land (1928 – 2001) is still best known for his 1954-55 stint in the epochal Clifford Brown and Max Roach Quintet, the gig that brought him to national attention, but as a sideman, leader, and more frequently co-leader, he never stopped evolving. “People who know him tend to think of him as a brawny bebop tenor player in the Sonny Rollins era and valence, but he always kept moving,” said Berkeley guitarist and arranger Tony Corman, whose 17-piece Morchestra presents Big Band Harold Land Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory

Corman became fascinated by Land’s music in the 1990s during his previous musical life as a saxophonist (he told Berkeleyside about the medical condition that forced him to give up the horn in this story) when his Red Note Band with trumpeter Bill Ortiz honed a book of compositions by post-bop masters like Woody Shaw, Wayne Shorter and Land. Turning his attention to the guitar in 2002, Corman also started to focus on composing and arranging, plunging into the challenge of writing for a big band “as a way to stay productive and grow,” he said. “I had this whole body of work, including all these Harold Land pieces I’d transcribed for Red Note. Over the course of 15 years I gradually developed a dozen arrangements of his tunes for the Morchestra.”

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The band is loaded with top-shelf jazz talent, starting with the rhythm section featuring veteran drummer Dave Rokeach, bassist Karl Hartmann, and pianist Laura Klein, Corman’s spouse, musical partner, and an esteemed composer and bandleader herself. With a saxophone section full of players who double on flutes and various clarinets, the Morchestra provides a vividly multi-hued palette for Corman, as well as a deep bench of dependably galvanizing soloists, like Larry De La Cruz. 

A longtime Berkeley resident who recently moved to the Richmond Annex, De La Cruz is a founding member of drummer Jeremy Steinkoler’s Mo’Fone, but recently he’s been busiest working in theatrical shows, like Berkeley Rep’s just-concluded production Goddess, “which is the best gig I’ve ever played,” he said. “The cast and the musicians are just unbelievably talented. Such a gas every night.” Next up for De La Cruz is Berkeley Playhouse’s musical production of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, but if you want to hear him in a pure jazz setting, he’s a crucial voice in the Morchestra. 

Larry De La Cruz (center) with Mo’Fone bandmates Jim Peterson (left) and Jeremy Steinkoler (right) at the 65th Monterey Jazz Festival. Courtesy of the artists

De La Cruz was familiar with Land’s work as a player but wasn’t well acquainted with his compositions before this project. During the height of the pandemic, when assembling a big band to record or perform inside wasn’t possible, De La Cruz home recorded all the reed and flute parts on initial arrangements for Corman, an experience that gave him a deep look into the music’s structure. 

He found that Land’s compositions reflected his “very organic style of writing,” De La Cruz said. “A lot of jazz and popular music is based on eight and four measure phrases. But Land’s phrases are not symmetrical. He’s writing according to his own logic and if you’re not paying attention you’re going to get lost.”

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He and Corman have known each other since the 1990s, and De La Cruz remembers his previous musical incarnation as “a brilliant saxophonist. It’s kind of heartbreaking he can’t play anymore, but he’s turned into a brilliant guitar player. Tony is just a great musician, with incredible ears and good sensibility about composing and arranging. He took Harold’s stuff and took it a step farther. He’s really good at using woodwinds and saxophone groupings to create all these beautiful colors.”

With his big, burly sound Land was often associated with the Texas tenor tradition of Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet and Buddy Tate, though his connection to the state was brief. First inspired to pick up the horn by tenor sax patriarch Coleman Hawkins, he didn’t identify with the Lone Star sound, dryly responding to a question about his Houston roots saying “the fact the I left Texas at about 6 months old would seem to have some bearing on the situation.” 

He grew up in San Diego, and got his start under the tutelage of trumpeter Froebel Brigham. On his first recordings, made for Savoy in 1949, Land was still under Hawkins’ sway, but he’d already absorbed elements of bebop and R&B. Moving to LA in the early ’50s he got his big break when trumpet star Clifford Brown heard him at a jam session in Eric Dolphy’s garage. Before a tragic 1956 car crash killed Brown at the age of 25 (and also took the life of the quintet’s pianist, Richie Powell) the group the trumpeter co-led with drum great Max Roach was considered modern jazz’s most advanced small combo. Land proved to be an ideal foil for Brown on classic EmArcy albums like Brown and Roach Incorporated and Study in Brown

Tony Corman’s Morchestra plays at the opening of the John Hinkel Park amphitheater. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkekeleyside/CatchLight

But after a two-year stint in the quintet, Land returned to Southern California to be with his family and settled in Los Angeles, while the saxophonist who replaced him became the decade’s dominant force on tenor, Sonny Rollins. While Land thrived in LA creatively in the 1950s, recording several classic albums for Contemporary under his own name and with an oft-overlooked hard bop quintet led by bassist Curtis Counce, he mostly flew under the radar of the New York and Chicago-centric jazz press. 

Highly regarded by his peers, he recorded with Thelonious Monk, Wes Montgomery, Hampton Hawes, and bandleader/composer Gerald Wilson (with whom Land was associated for decades), but never recorded for a major non-jazz label that could have raised his profile. Dignified and unassuming, Land wasn’t particularly driven to seek attention. He often preferred to share the spotlight, co-leading bands with bassist Red Mitchell in the early ’60s and (unrelated) trumpeter Blue Mitchell in the mid-‘70s. 

He made what many consider his greatest music with Bobby Hutcherson, recording a series of classic albums for Blue Note between 1969-71 either as co-leaders or under the vibraphonist’s name. They continued to perform together in various contexts until Land’s death. In a 1993 interview at his home, Land mused about his penchant for musical partnerships, tracing it back to the influence of Brown and Roach “when I could see how two talents like that could blend their musical personalities and their personal personalities without any strife whatsoever,” he told me.

“It worked so beautiful for them that undoubtedly had some influence on me, so that the individuals that I knew and where I was doing the same thing, the results were the same. If you really felt that close personally and musically, which is all tied in together, it worked well to do it together without any jealousy or one wanting to be more of the leader than the other. So it just seemed like it was my karma that that was supposed to go down like that.”

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Speaking of brilliant, Los Angeles jazz musicians, pianist, composer and arranger Billy Childs plays a rare East Bay engagement on Oct. 14-15 at the California Jazz Conservatory. Presented as part of the JAMBAR series, Childs plays two nights with the superlative faculty rhythm section tandem of bassist Jeff Denson and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Over the past two decades, Childs has accrued 16 Grammy nominations and five Grammy Awards, including for his exquisite “New York Tenderberry” arrangement featuring Renée Fleming and Yo-Yo Ma from his jazz chart-topping 2014 Sony Masterworks album Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro.

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....