As the plane on which I was a passenger touched down in Albuquerque late in the afternoon on Memorial Day, I remained deep in thought, wondering to myself how one could possibly summarize in words the memorable experience that was Neophonic Impressions, a big-band extravaganza held May 26-29 at the Four Points Sheraton-LAX Hotel and sponsored by the Los Angeles Jazz Institute.
As always, there was music galore, superbly performed by a company of the West Coast's most accomplished musicians, but that was only a part of what made the event special, as are all of LAJI impresario Ken Poston's persuasive events. My impression, seated in the audience while savoring the films, panel discussions and concerts, was one of gratitude, thankful that there are groups of people, however small their numbers, who are dedicated to keeping big-band Jazz in general and the visionary concepts of Stan Kenton in particular not only alive but fresh and vibrant.
It was Kenton who, some forty years ago, coined the term "neophonic to describe the new sound of his expanded orchestra, an amalgamation of Jazz, classical and Latin motifs that carried big bands to places they'd never been before. Stan's unquenchable spirit permeated the four-day event in Los Angeles during which a number of ensembles, professional and college, reminded us all that when it came to innovative big-band Jazz, Stan was years ahead of his time and of his peers.
The various orchestras, several with French horns, mellophoniums and / or tubas added, sparkled under the guidance of such well-known helmsmen as Bill Holman, Bob Florence, Gerald Wilson, Bud Shank, Kim Richmond, Clare Fischer, Buddy Collette and Joel Kaye and they had to stay on their toes to make sure they weren't overshadowed by the superb Collegiate Junior Neophonic Orchestra of Southern California, ably conducted by Jack Wheaton. There were many impressive brass sections on display, and Wheaton's collegians boasted one of the best, splendidly anchored by co-lead trumpeters Joe Harris and Byron Panopio.
On Friday and Saturday evenings, the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra 2005 held center stage in concerts presided over by guest conductors Wilson, Florence, Kaye, Fischer, Russ Garcia, Tommy Vig, Lennie Niehaus and Alf Clausen. A look at the LANO's starting lineup is indicative of the quality of musicianship on display throughout the four-day event. Trumpets Carl Saunders, Steve Huffsteter, Ron Stout, Pete DiSiena, Mike McGuffey. Reeds Richmond, Don Shelton, Gene Cipriano, Bob Efford, Bob Carr. Trombones Andy Martin, Dale DeVoe, Dave Ryan, Mike Suter. Horns Stephanie O'Keefe, Mami Johnson, Jon Titmus, Nathan Campbell. Piano Rich Eames. Guitar Doug MacDonald. Bass Trey Henry. Drums Peter Erskine. Percussion David Johnson, Brad Dutz. Needless to say, no one was left disappointed.
The lively eighty-nine-year old Garcia, whose intellect is as keen as a double-edged razor, was the guest of honor Friday evening at a dinner honoring his nearly sixty-year career as one of the country's leading composer / arrangers. Besides arranging for such outstanding Jazz musicians as Buddy DeFranco, Charlie Barnet, Roy Eldridge, Johnny Hodges, Ray Brown, Buddy Childers and others, Garcia wrote original compositions for Kenton's Neophonic Orchestra in 1965 and composed numerous film and television scores during a long career with Universal, Warner Brothers and Disney Studios. In 1971 Russ and his wife, Gina, decided to leave Hollywood behind and sailed their trimaran halfway around the world to New Zealand, where they have lived ever since.
Bud Shank's star-studded big band, which performed late Saturday afternoon, was recorded by Graham Carter's Jazzed Media label, as was a part of the Holman band's closing concert the following evening. Jazzed Media has already released a superlative CD by the Holman ensemble recorded last September at the LAJI's tribute to Maynard Ferguson, with another by the Don Menza Big Band yet to come.
Day 1 included performances by Kim Richmond's Concert Jazz Orchestra and the Bob Florence Limited Edition as well as the first of three films covering the "Neophonic Era of the mid-'60s and a lunchtime poolside concert by the Cal State University-Long Beach Jazz Ensemble conducted by John Carnahan. My plane arrived too late to catch that one, but I was on hand for noon performances by El Camino College (Friday), the JazzAmerica Big Band (Saturday) and Cerritos College (Sunday).