San Diego-based jazz flutist Lori Bell, one of the many world-class musicians calling our town their home, has been an active and essential part of our local music community for a good while. An elegant improvisor, Lori’s efforts as band leader, arranger, composer, educator, and collaborator in a wide field of styles has built a reputation as a preëminent master of her instrument. She’s released nine albums as a leader over the years, all receiving generous notices.
The reception for her 2016 CD, Brooklyn Dreaming, though, was of a magnitude she didn’t expect. She won a Global Music Award for Outstanding Achievement, while also garnering Best Album of 2016 in Downbeat magazine, Best in Jazz 2016 in the Huffington Post, and a Best Jazz Album nomination from the San Diego Music Awards. The album was conceptualized and intended as a tribute to her parents and the town she was born in, and Lori was in no small way surprised that such a personal project achieved such major acclaim.
“It took me about nine months to write all the material and arrange the three covers that are on [the album],” said Lori in a recent phone conversation. “And it was just like having a little baby. It took exactly that amount of time; I was just blown away by the response. I had been reviewed in several magazines throughout the years, but I had never been in Downbeat. That surprised the heck out of me because I was in there three times. First, in the January issue, I got Editors Pick from Brian Zimmerman. He gave it a great review. Then it got reviewed again in March, which kind of surprised me. The review was by Bill Milkowski, one of the most famous jazz writers. He gave it a fantastic review and then, at the end of the year, it was on Downbeat’s list of the 10 Best Jazz Albums for 2016, which knocked my socks off.”
Lori is a long-time San Diegan, but she remains a New Yorker in spirit.
“I’m originally from Brooklyn,” she says. “My Dad was a big band lead trumpet player in New York for 30 years, so I grew up in a musical household. My mom played accordion and I had a great ear for both jazz and classical music, so I grew up hearing a lot of classical and jazz by hanging out with my dad a lot. He used to take me to rehearsals with him when I was just a little tiny kid, so I grew up in that environment. I actually started off on guitar when I was four. My dad taught me “The Girl from Ipanema,” which was the first song I ever learned on a ukulele. I was a serious string player for 12 years. I only started on the flute at age 16. At that point the bells and whistles were flashing when I got that thing in my hands. And that took precedence over all my other musical endeavors.
“My dad discovered California when he was on tour and was taken with San Diego in particular. My dad flipped when he saw this place and filed it away for future consideration, the idea of actually moving here. After playing in New York for 30 years and the big band era started to fizzle out a little bit, I think he had had enough of New York. One day he just said, ‘That’s it! We’re moving to California and we’re going to San Diego. That’s how I wound up out here. And during that time I was studying flute primarily in San Diego and in Los Angeles. I went back to New York a few times to study but I never felt I was ready to play there. I was always intimidated by that idea. So, every time I would go back I was just taking lessons or going to hear people or studying.”
Ms. Bell felt she wasn’t ready to play the Big Apple for the usual reasons—the sort of self-criticism that makes many gifted people short-change their abilities. The consummate brilliance of Brooklyn Dreaming and resulting accolades it received made something clear: it was time to go home to the world’s greatest city as a first-rate musician, standing in no one’s shadow. Returning to the East Coast took some prodding.
“After Brooklyn Dreaming came out in 2016, my manager at the time told me, ‘You have to go back to New York. Lori, you have to play there now with your album.’ And I was like okay, I guess I finally do. I’m a recovering perfectionist and, honestly, I just never thought I was good enough to go back to New York. Truthfully, I guess I was good enough for at least five years, but I always felt, ‘No I have to protect my playing and no, I’m not going to play New York.’
Her journeys to New York following the CD release and reception of the record gave her a whirlwind of gigs and opportunities as performer, composer, and educator. Already a well-regarded music educator specializing in jazz flute, she found herself now among a pantheon of personal heroes in places she had only dreamed about. Somehow, the sensational response from the writers at Downbeat seemed to be the final thing that convinced Lori to walk through her reservations and return to her hometown.
“I have been reviewed in a number of magazines and websites with my other releases, but I never made it into Downbeat, which I always thought was kind of the gold standard. I was eager to get into that magazine and be recognized. It felt good to my name and record there, being so well received. So, when my manager said that I had to go to New York, I said, ‘Oh, God. Okay. Well, let me see what I can do.’
“When I went back there for my first tour, I played a venue called Smoke as well as a cool room in Brooklyn called The Drawing Room. That was a great spot. I also played a jazz series called Brownstone Jazz Series, which was in Brooklyn. One of the teaching engagements I most highly prize was being able to teach at the Mannes Music Conservatory in the New School. Their flute chair is Judith Mendenhall, one of my heroes and someone I studied with. She’s one of the most incredible classical flute players on the planet. I’ve been worshipping the ground she walks on since I first heard her play when I was 25 years old. I took a few lessons with her when I went to New York and also when she came out to California.
“She found out I was going to be in New York on tour and came to one of my performances. I was, of course, stunned. And then she said, ‘You’ve got to come to Mannes.’ That’s how I got to teach there. Since then, I’ve been there three times. It’s super exciting and I’ll be there again in the fall. I’ve also taught at Columbia University twice and that was for the New York Flute Club. So, I was able to get in with them, which was another organization that I always dreamt about being able to do something for. Even with that, my mind still tells me that I’m not good enough.”
Her perfectionism might keep her self-evaluations of capability unduly modest. Her colleagues, friends, and her many fans know she is more than “good enough” for New York’s demanding reputation as the center of the Jazz Universe. Lori Bell exceeds any requirements made of her talent. Last fall Lori performed in NYC at Birdland for two nights with extraordinary clarinetist Eddie Daniels as part of a celebration for the 10th anniversary for Resonance Records.
Befitting the album’s wide acclaim from esteemed jazz writers and key music publications, Lori will be doing a special performance of selections from Brooklyn Dreaming for the Fourth Friday Jazz Series at the La Jolla Community Center Friday on June 28. Joining Lori that evening are Josh Nelson on piano and Rob Thorsen on bass. Nelson is a fleet and graceful pianist who toured with Natalie Cole for six years and continues to tour with vocalists Gaby Moreno, Freda Payne, Alicia Olatuja, Sara Gazarek, accordionist Richard Galliano, saxophonist Tom Scott, multi-instrumentalist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, and violinist Christian Howes. Rob Thorsen is well-known to San Diego jazz audiences, a bassist of great technique and whose reliably restrained, yet inspired work contributes to a wide swath of styles, including hard be bop with saxophone giant Charles McPherson, propelling trumpet firebrand Gilbert Castellanos, or navigating a free jazz session with saxophonist and composer Jason Robinson. These are musicians who can do it all. This show is an opportunity to see three superlative jazz musicians in an intimate live setting as they perform music from an especially fine jazz release.
Recent days have given Lori a crowded calendar, with events and collaborations requiring her artistry. A case in point was the May 8th tribute to canonical multi-instrumentalist/ composer and bandleader Eric Dolphy. Dolphy, who was equally inventive in improvisational technique on flute and saxophone, was a profound influence on her as a developing musician. Again, she was stunned that she received a summons to participate.
“I was so excited to get a call to be part of an Eric Dolphy tribute! It was in Los Angeles at Mr. Music Head Gallery, which is a very cool place on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. They have a lot of jazz concerts there and it’s just a wonderful spot. And it was with outrageous alto saxophonist David Binny and other terrific players like Henry Soloman on bass clarinet, Chris Williams playing trumpet, Simon Moullier on vibes, bassist Tabari Lake, and Dan Schnelle playing drums. They’re all monster players.”
Flutist Bob Sheppard was originally scheduled for the project but needed to leave his commitment. Benny knew about Lori’s considerable talent and contacted her to see if she’d like to participate. She was, of course, floored once again to be asked to be part of a tribute to one of her long-time musical heroes. She zoomed right past her self-criticism and accepted the invitation. She explains a bit about how the event came to be, which was with the release of some previously unreleased Dolphy music from Resonance Records.
“How a night of Eric Dolphy came about was because of Resonance Records. They recently put out another historical recording of his unreleased music. That’s what that label is famous for. An amazing part about this is the people who had this unheard music and who eventually came to trust the acclaimed flutist James Newton with it. James Newton is not playing right now or else he obviously would’ve done the gig. He’s been professor at UCLA and is getting ready to retire and just go full on into composing from what I’ve heard. But he was there that night and there was a panel we had with Randall Roberts, a writer from the Los Angeles Times.
“It was so awesome. And on this gig, there was no guitar or piano… just vibes in place of both, which was exactly what was on the record. So, it was vibes, bass, piano. And then for winds we had trumpet, bass clarinet, alto sax, and flute. And I was just so honored that I was able to be a part of this concert. It meant so much to me because when I was first starting out on flute when I was around 18, I got turned on Eric Dolphy and went into a Dolphy coma, which I’ve never come out of. I mean, he’s a total hero in every sense. He did the most innovative flute work ever. But when I got a call to do this concert, I was just stunned.”
In turn, the music from the performance is stunning, and there are some generous video clips available to view on YouTube, using the search words “Eric Dolphy Tribute, Lori Bell.
At the time of our talk, Lori was preparing for a performance with San Diego-based composer/pianist/band leader Joe Garrison and his ensemble, Night People, for a concert of compositions by Kamau Kenyatta as part of the UCSD Wednesdays@7 concert series, which took place last month. Garrison is an extraordinarily gifted and imaginative composer with roots in jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and 20th-century modernism. He has created a body of work that is a detailed, challenging delight to experience—a tapestry of bright and dark colors, vibrant timbres, pulsating rhythms, and surprising moments at every turn. Lori has been a part of his Night People ensemble for a good amount of time.
“I produced the last two albums for Joe, The People Upstairs and The Broken Jar,” said Lori, “and I played on both those releases. Now we’re doing a brand new project called Prayers and Mantras, with live electronics and an opera singer. It’s wild! This new project keeps expanding its horizons because Joe is so very prolific—book after book after book tours.”
Lori pauses for a second and then continues, “Here’s one thing that we’re keeping our fingers crossed for, which is applying for the Chamber Music of America Grant for the second time. We’re going to know by the end of next month. So, we’re keeping our fingers crossed because if Joe is able to get a grant, everything is going to change for this group. We need money and more venues to perform in, in other cities. I’ve been trying to get shows up in L.A. and New York. If he’s able to get a grant through the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which, you know, is what Chamber Music of America offers. Peter Sprague [Del Mar jazz guitar virtuoso] has already received two of those. So we’re hoping. Joe has a good shot; for this last submission we used The Broken Jar, which was really great. I have high hopes.”
Even with the surfeit of diverse collaborations, special performances, travel, teaching, and recording, the indefatigable Lori Bell maintains a steady stream of engagements with singer/guitarist/pianist, and songwriter Ron Satterfield. Their friendship and musical partnership has lasted decades, and audiences have heard the riveting and rhythmic joy they create as a duo—with ace percussionist Tommy Aros in Trio de Janeiro and in combination with other fine local musicians. Worth noting is their 2017 release blue(s), with Lori on flute and Satterfield on guitar plus his ariel vocalese. These are two musicians at the top of their game extemporizing from melodies both daunting and delightful.
Lori recalls that although they’d been in the same circles back in the day, their first musical encounter took some time to occur. One day, she found herself in a recording studio with several people, including Ron. She had with her a song she had recently composed. Ron had taken a look at her score and asked aloud who wrote the chords. Lori, a fine pianist as well as flutist, answered that the song was her composition and that the chord arrangements were her own.
“Ron’s interest was piqued. ‘Well, let me see let me see the chart!’ I showed him the chart and he asked who wrote the chords and I said I did. And he said, ‘How?’ And I said, ‘On piano.’ He just sort of arrogantly got up to go. ‘Let me see you play piano.’ And I said well, okay. And I just started playing the tune. When I was done, I turned around looked at him and he was just like wow, the real deal. He was just knocked out. And from then on it was like we were going 100 miles an hour. You know, Ron is a great composer and great piano player. He plays guitar like a bass player and is just the heaviest time player of anybody I know. Lori has great praise for Satterfield’s genius for working well in any group situations, keeping the ensembles tight and solid as they seem to swing free and easily.
“He literally sounds like a one-man band. His timing, his feel. I mean, he is more fun to play in a duo than some bands I’ve played with, I have to tell you. I mean, just him, that’s all you need. We’re currently exploring tour support to create a little tour and we’ll see what happens with that. You know, I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I think grants are kind of the way to go now if you’re lucky enough to get them, but you’ve got to keep trying.”
A forward-looking artist, Lori has not one but three different recording projects in the offing, each one to be expressive of a different facet of her diverse musicality.
“I have three album projects on my brain. I’m not sure exactly when I’m going to get into the studio but I started writing all new original material for a new album. My writing is going into a different direction and I’m excited about it. And so, I’m going to take a couple of them back to New York to premier at the Iridium.
“The next album after that is going to be original arrangements of Bill Evans’ music. I started writing them because I haven’t really heard a lot of flute players, if any, do much of Bill Evans. Hopefully, that’s going to be unique.
“The third album project will be my second classical CD, and it will be all 20th-century repertoire. I put out my first classical CD in 2014 with the same kind of music, mainly American and French. And it’s time to do another one because I want to keep my level of classical playing high. The only way to do that is to get into the studio and continue to record like we were talking about earlier. Melonie Grinnell and I are going to start rehearsing some of this repertoire in the summer, so I’m excited about that. It’s a lot of work. It’s going to be a lot, but that’s how I stay busy: practicing, writing, and composing is what I do. It’s just me working at my craft…”
There’s a pause and I can hear her take a breath.
“Gosh, I’ve given you an earful,” she says finally, giving a little laugh.
One is tempted to correct her and say that what she’s given us is an earful of alluring sounds over a intriguingly creative period of time. The generosity of her spirit and the abundance of her talent makes this writer want to hear every note of every good idea she has in mind to play.