This Means War!

In search of some really good acid jazz

I've never understood the term "acid jazz," as the music it's supposed to describe has nothing whatsoever to do with either acid or jazz. It seems instead to refer to a brand of marginally improvised funk-lite (gag! puke!) inspired by the featherweight noodling of guys like Grover Washington, Bob James and Lonnie Liston-Smith (gag! puke!). Perhaps some asshole scratching away at a turntable (GAAAAG! PUUUUKE!) is thrown into the mix to make it more "contemporary."

You want to know what should really be called "acid jazz"? Check out late-period Coltrane. Or early Mahavishnu Orchestra. Or just about anything by Sun Ra or Rashaan Roland Kirk or Pharoah Sanders.

Or check out WAR at the Crazy Horse Steakhouse & Saloon on Sunday night, if you feel up to braving some ticket prices bloated to the level of a bad acid-jazz trip (58 bucks for a band that hasn't had a hit in more than 20 years?). The veteran Titans of That Which Funks are what acid-jazz players might sound like if all their testicle juice hadn't been drained off; their music is like an un-eunuched template for what acid jazz wants to be. Canyon-deep grooves, walls of percussion, a brawny Latin influence and monstrously melodic hooks hallmark their sound. For reference, check out such classics as "Cisco Kid," "Low Rider," "Slippin' Into Darkness," "The World Is a Ghetto," "Me and Baby Brother" and "Spill the Wine."

These tunes, however, are only the more familiar fare. War (in lineups somewhat different from those of their commercial peak) released a pair of criminally overlooked albums in the '90s, Peace Sign (1994) and The Music Band (1999), which continued their long legacy of excellence. While these albums fell sadly short of past commercial glories, they were the creative equal (and more, in the case of some songs) of their 1970s output. The title cut of Peace Sign in particular should have been a hit that conquered the world in the summer of '94. Instead, the album was consigned to the cutout bins within a year. Ahhh, fuck the world.

If there's one drawback to War 2000, it's that they might retain a very 1970s predilection for drawn-out jams in concert. That was the case when I last saw them; the group riffed for a full half-hour on "Low Rider." While their energy and commitment to giving fans lengthy shows for the buck is admirable, anyone needs to heed the buzzer at around the nine or 10-minute mark, at the least, or risk descent into self-indulgent monotony.

Trumpet terror ROY HARGROVE, among my favorites of the so-called young lions of jazz, plays a three-night stint at the Orange County Performing Arts Center Friday through Sunday, performing a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie. Aside from a late-'90s side trip into Latin jazz with the band Crisol, Hargrove has been reliably hard-bop throughout his career, initially inspired by the likes of Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro and Lee Morgan. While this adherence to tradition had critics lambasting Hargrove for a lack of original statement early in his career, many agree that he's developed into a player with solid, unique ideas to complement his dazzling technique, bluesy attack and full tone.

Either way, I've never understood some jazz crits' expectations for every new musician on the scene to rewrite the rule book or the trend toward slamming young boppers as derivative hacks. Guys like Hargrove, Wynton Marsalis, Cyrus Chestnut, Wallace Roney, Terence Blanchard and James Carter simply approach the music from a platform they understand and enjoy. They find an outlet for original expression from within the tradition.

But back to Hargrove. While it could be argued that Marsalis' worship of Duke Ellington's composition or Chestnut's love of Fats Waller's stride style has sometimes produced tunes that seem more of a cop than a tribute, Hargrove has never come off as a pure imitator. There's a universally forlorn quality to everything he plays (particularly when he settles into a simmering ballad), and his improvisational ideas are often surprising, on a level of musical genius achieved by the likes of Sonny Rollins (with whom Hargrove has played).

As Hargrove is still only 30 years old, there's much great music to come from him yet. This week presents three opportunities to take in one of the finest and most important players to arrive in the past 10 years or so—ride with it!

If there's one good thing that could be said about the relentless blasts of dookie emanating from Nashville, it's that the sad state of commercial country has driven singer and multi-instrumentalist RICKY SKAGGS screaming back home into the arms of the bluegrass music from which he came. Skaggs is best-known for waxing such country hits as "Uncle Pen," "I Don't Care" and "Heartbroke" back in the '80s, but he came up playing bluegrass with Ralph Stanley, J.D. Crowe & New South and Boone Creek before hitting the big time as a solo country star. By 1994, his relatively uncompromised brand of country had fallen from favor, and Columbia Records dumped him.

If this indignity weren't enough to sour Skaggs on Nashville, the occasion of Bill Monroe's death sparked something akin to a religious conversion in him. "I made a commitment to Mr. Monroe on his deathbed," an emotion-choked Skaggs told me of the passing of bluegrass's godfather in 1996. "He was very worried and concerned about what would happen to the music. I told him on his deathbed that I was absolutely going to do everything in my power to keep bluegrass music alive. I told him not to worry about it, that his music is gonna stay intact, people are gonna play it, and I'm gonna do my part to keep it going as long as I live."

Skaggs has been as good as his word, recording a fine pair of bluegrass albums since then and even cutting off his trademark Bubba mullet into the bargain—thank you, Jesus! His latest, Ancient Tones, is Skaggs' best yet, and it's the first recorded for his own label, Skaggs Family Records. Full of exciting ensemble picking (Jerry Douglas on dobro!) and high 'n' lonesome harmony vocals, it's hard to believe Skaggs was contained by commerce for so long, hits be damned. The album sounds like a catharsis for Skaggs as much as it is a good time for the listener; you can almost feel the layers of frustration melting off the good ol' boy. Check out a rejuvenated, red-hot Ricky on Wednesday night at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.

War plays at the Crazy Horse Steakhouse & Saloon, Irvine Spectrum, 71 Fortune Dr., Irvine, (714) 549-1512. Sun., 8 p.m. $45-$58; Roy Hargrove performs at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2122. Fri.-Sun. Call for show times and ticket prices; Ricky Skaggs plays at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Dr., Cerritos, (562) 916-8510. Wed., 8 p.m. $37-$47.
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