Los Angeles real estate developer Paul Solomon was well established in the city when he began working on revitalizing a large office complex on Century Boulevard. The building is very close to Los Angeles International Airport, better known as LAX. Solomon decided to carve out an area in the 92,000 square feet available and put in a bar that would reflect his varied interests. “One of my passions is jazz,” Solomon notes on the website for the Sam First bar. “Another is architecture, another is photography. Those are my pictures all over the walls. As for the furniture, all the pieces that aren’t built-in are real vintage midcentury pieces, made by people like Herman Miller and Artemide.”
“I had access to the space,” Solomon wrote to me in an email. “So we ended up in this location at the entrance to LAX. LAX, unlike many large city airports, is very much a part of the fabric of the city and accessible by 30 minutes or less of driving if it is not a high-traffic time of the day.”
When it came time to name his new place, Solomon chose to pay tribute to his grandfather. “He was a big source of inspiration and love in my life and I wanted to name something important to me after him.” The website provides some background: “Sam First, the venue, was inspired by Sam First, the man—an old-world tailor who led his family out of the wilderness (and even better, to Los Angeles!), and whose brilliant smile warmed his grandson’s heart.” Sam First jazz club and cocktail bar opened in 2017.
Given Solomon’s interests, it made sense for him to make the bar a showcase for live music. Sam First features jazz on Tuesdays through Saturdays, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Artistic director David Robaire handles the booking and scheduling of the groups that appear. Robaire’s discography and his work with other musicians made him a solid choice for developing Sam First as a home for live jazz in LA.
Paul Solomon and David Robaire
Solomon knew he wanted Sam First to be a place where music would be presented well. “I like to hear things that sound good,” he told me by email. “To have the best musicians in the world want to play at Sam First, the quality of the sound is important. And to reproduce the high-quality sound that is played live in the club, high-quality components and smart strategies to mike and capture a live group are needed.”
Robaire described how he worked on developing a sound system for the venue. “The live sound system started with a very basic Mackie board, a few [Shure] 58 microphones, and some mediocre PA speakers,” he said. “But that developed over time.” Robaire tapped into some resources he had worked with in the past. “I had a pre-existing relationship with DPA [Danish Pro Audio, now DPA Microphones] and AEA [Audio Engineering Associates], who were both extremely helpful in getting us set up with some really great mikes, and eventually we started running that through a 24-input digital house system [MOTU Monitor 8].”
Solomon and Robaire brought in Arau Acustica, a Spanish firm that specializes in architectural acoustics, to help with the design. The sound in the venue, along with its location and the intimacy of the room, soon made it a place where jazz musicians were eager to play. Drummer Peter Erskine appeared at Sam First with a quartet for three nights in January 2019. A three-CD set of recordings from those performances, 3 Nights in L.A., features George Garzone on sax, Alan Pasqua on piano, and Darek Oles on bass. In his description for the CD release, Erskine called Sam First “L.A.’s newest jazz haunt. Great vibe for musicians and audience alike, plus the best-sounding room in town.”
By the time Erskine released 3 Nights in L.A., Solomon and Robaire had already envisioned that Sam First could be a recording studio. “The idea of recording really came from wanting to capture the incredible music that was happening at Sam First, night after night,” Robaire explained. “And since the club had already existed for three years prior, it just made sense that our room, which already sounds amazing, would also become our recording studio.”
“When we eventually started building out the recording studio,” he continued, “I reached out to one of my producer heroes, Larry Klein, who put me in touch with the great film-score engineer, Alan Meyerson, for help picking out the preamps and additional mikes, etc.” The gear list on the Sam First website reflects the work and commitment Solomon and Robaire put into building a recording studio that would match the quality of the sound in the bar and make the music that happens there available to jazz lovers.
Earlier this year, Solomon and Robaire established Sam First Records. So far, the label has released five recordings by musicians who have appeared at the bar. Given the care Solomon and Robaire have committed to the acoustic design and sound equipment at Sam First, it’s not surprising that the quality of the label’s recordings is very good. Perhaps more importantly, they capture the excitement of some outstanding live jazz.
Sam First Records offers its recordings in limited-edition vinyl pressings and as downloads. I’ll be looking at a few of the vinyl releases.
Joe La Barbera: World Travelers (SFR 003)
Joe La Barbera has been active in music since the mid-1970s, when he played with Woody Herman and Chuck Mangione. He was the drummer in pianist Bill Evans’s last trio, and has appeared on recordings by Tony Bennett, Bud Shank, and Michael Bublé. On World Travelers, he is joined by Bob Sheppard on tenor, Clay Jenkins on trumpet, Bill Cunliffe on piano, and Jonathan Richards on bass. The sessions were recorded at Sam First on March 4 and 5, 2022.
Cunliffe’s “Blue Notes” recreates the feel of the mid-1960s hard bop that made Blue Note Records so popular in that era. The ensemble playing during the opening theme is sharp and precise, with La Barbera moving the band along at full swing. His accents and cymbal work help to shape and push each player’s individual statement forward. Sheppard builds on the main theme to create his own melodic variations, and Jenkins’s feature is fiery and full of deep blues feeling. Cunliffe’s outing also leans heavily toward the blues but has a delightful upbeat quality. The ensemble closes the tune on an exciting note.
La Barbera’s “Lake Erie” begins with a considered and musically compelling drum solo that leads the band into an unpredictable and occasionally dissonant melodic theme that demands—and repays—close attention. Each of the players builds on the opening with stimulating and fresh ideas, and La Barbera gives firm support throughout. Joe Lovano’s “Landmarks Along the Way” has a unique structure and some challenging variations in tempo that the group handles with ease. Duke Pearson’s beautiful ballad “You Know I Care” lets the group show its sensitivity and John Coltrane’s “Grand Central” closes the LP on a hard-swinging, burning note. La Barbera’s solo on the track is a high point of the album.
I want to be sure to mention bassist Jonathan Richards, whose playing is rhythmically exciting and melodically effective, but all the players are sterling under La Barbera’s leadership. Bill Kirchner’s liner notes point out the educational pedigree of the players—Sheppard and Cunliffe studied at Eastman School of Music and Jenkins teaches there—but this is not sterile, academic jazz. These are exciting players who have worked together for 20 years, and it shows.
Justin Kauflin Trio: Live at Sam First (SFR 001)
At age 37, Justin Kauflin is a seasoned jazz pianist who started recording as a sideman in 2004, when he was just 18, and as a leader in 2010. He has also penned quite a few film scores and was the subject of a documentary, Keep On Keepin’ On, about his friendship with Clark Terry. The trumpeter was his instructor and mentor at William Paterson University.
Kauflin recorded Live at Sam First on October 2 and 3, 2021. The recordings feature Sam First’s Robaire on bass and Mark Ferber on drums.
Kauflin’s lengthy intro to “Coming Home” is filled with long melodic flourishes that show a strong affinity for 19th-century impressionist composers, so it would be easy to draw comparisons to a similar-minded player like Bill Evans. However, as Robaire and Ferber filter in and the piece develops, Kauflin’s unique qualities as a writer and player become apparent, and it’s clear that comparisons won’t do. His sense of melody remains intact even during the most intense passages, and Robaire’s bass follows along, providing a strong backdrop. Ferber’s timing and sense of dynamics give cohesion and focus to the performance.
“Tempest” is another melodic tour de force, with Kauflin’s impressive arpeggios at the lower end of the keyboard giving support to the main theme. Robaire’s bass lines are spare, but exactly what Kauflin needs as his improvisation takes off. Kauflin balances moments of power with long passages of grand, exciting flights of invention. A brief, elegant solo by Robaire closes the song and leads to a gorgeous ballad, “No Matter,” which has a strong gospel feel that demonstrates Kauflin’s versatility.
“Thank You Lord” is even more overt in its gospel lineage, and Kauflin plays it with a conviction that conveys a powerful sense of spirituality. His take on Cole Porter’s “You Do Something To Me,” the only song on the LP that Kauflin didn’t write, is bracing and confident. Robaire turns in a beautifully developed solo on the song, buoyed along by Kauflin’s thoughtful comping, and Ferber’s drum feature is also smartly delivered. The trio’s combination of smart, savvy musicianship and emotional fervor is matched by palpably joyful playing.
Rachel Eckroth: Humanoid (SFR 005)
Pianist Rachel Eckroth has played with singer-songwriters St. Vincent, Rufus Wainwright, and KT Tunstall, and with jazz trumpeter Chris Botti. Her own recordings include a solo piano album (One, from earlier this year), an ensemble release of her own compositions that mix jazz and prog rock (The Garden, 2021), and several albums of her sophisticated pop songs.
Humanoid is a quartet performance recorded at Sam First on October 28 and 29, 2023. Eckroth is joined by Andrew Renfroe on guitar, Billy Mohler on bass, and Tina Raymond on drums. The title track, a composition by Eckroth, is a medium-tempo piece with a jagged opening section that she and Renfroe play in tandem, with Raymond and Mohler deftly negotiating the sudden shifts in mood and time. Eckroth expands on the opening before handing things over to Renfroe, who lets his ideas unfold slowly at first. They build in tension and force, with Eckroth’s chords providing support and harmonic structure.
Eckroth and Renfroe state the main theme in another Eckroth tune, “Mind,” but Raymond’s exciting and dynamic drum work sets the tone for the piece. The track begins with a cerebral and slightly edgy feel that establishes a mood for Eckroth. She alternates long, flowing melodic lines with more cutting bursts of angular, dissonant passages, and adds an occasional hint of Latin jazz. Renfroe follows with a bright and energetic feature, and a touch of chorus and delay gives his guitar a spacious, expansive sound.
Duke Ellington recorded “Fleurette Africaine” (African Flower) in 1962 for Money Jungle, a trio release that features Charles Mingus and Max Roach. It reminded jazz fans that Ellington was always up to the minute, and it’s an audacious choice for Eckroth. The quartet takes the song at a more languid pace than the original, but Eckroth gives it a smart and faithful reading; by turns elegant and darkly tense. Renfroe shows a natural feel for the blues on a nylon-strung guitar, and is pushed into intense highs by Raymond, whose responsiveness and quick wit are a consistent pleasure throughout Humanoid.
Mohler’s playing is understated but full of clever turns that reinforce the other players and help give form and shape to the ensemble sections. He wrote “Evolution,” which begins with him alone, playing a lengthy intro that leads into a grand, melodic section, where he is joined by Eckroth and Raymond. Eckroth takes off, and her playing is engrossing and powerful—tuneful at times, but also muscular and dramatic. I hope Eckroth records often with this quartet.
Two other albums complete the Sam First Records catalog to date. LA Stories: Live at Sam First (SFR 002), is a quintet performance led by pianist Josh Nelson. I’ve reviewed his earlier work on SoundStage! Access, and his growth as a composer, player, and bandleader continues. He deserves a wider audience. Clam City is a trio comprising pianist Jeff Babko, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and drummer Mark Guiliana. Their eponymous release on Sam First Records (SFR 004) is a two-LP set that crosses genres from gospel to rock and jazz. The tunes are unpredictable and memorable, but most impressive is a take on Thelonious Monk’s “Boo Boo’s Birthday.” The trio negotiates the difficult composition easily, demonstrating their chops as well as their interpretive skills.
In addition to the five limited-edition LP releases, the titles on Sam First Records are available as digital downloads. “The limited pressings are 180-gram vinyl, which was the focus from the beginning,” Robaire told me. “We printed only 200 copies of the first three releases but started printing 500 copies of Clam City’s and Rachel Eckroth’s records.” All five titles are available as hi-rez downloads from the label’s website. The first four Sam First vinyl releases were single LPs, and the corresponding digital versions have additional tracks.
My copies of the LPs were well pressed: flat, with quiet backgrounds. Recent Sam First LPs have been pressed by Gotta Groove Records in Cleveland, Ohio. The company’s work is well enough regarded that it has been used by Intervention Records, which sets high standards for the quality of its pressings.
The covers feature Paul Solomon’s distinctive photographs. “They are photos that I take as I go through life,” he told me when I asked about his interest in photography. “I guess I have a sort of painterly style, where I am looking to compose and capture a mood or a glimpse of beauty that’s always around us.” He went on to explain how he and Robaire decided to use his work for Sam First’s album covers: “When we talked about cover art and an identity for the records, my photos were literally around us as we had the conversation as they are up at the club, and they are square-shaped like an album shape, and we laughed and said, ‘Well, that makes sense.’”
Nick Calapine is the sound engineer at Sam First and has handled various aspects of the record label’s releases. Gene Paul and Stuart Schenk, both veterans of the recording industry, helped guide the work on early releases, but as of Clam City, Calapine did the recording, mixing, and mastering. The drums are a bit closely miked on the Justin Kauflin recording, but the other recordings are well balanced and show an increasing skill in recording and mixing. There is no overdubbing or editing. At this point, Sam First Records sends the digital file to the pressing plant, which then cuts the lacquer for the vinyl releases.
As a vinyl collector, I am excited to see Sam First Records offering new live jazz on LP. As a jazz fan, I am happy that the label is giving great musicians wider exposure on both LP and hi-rez digital formats. I’m also eager to fly to Los Angeles, even if it’s just to pop in for an evening or two of music in a great venue.
. . . Joseph Taylor