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Big Band Report

Neophonic Impressions

By Published: June 8, 2005
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).

Richmond's adventurous ensemble played two of his compositions, "Anchor of Hope and "Big Sur, Johnny Mandel's "Seascape and Mike Barone's great arrangement (expanded for the occasion) of the country / western classic, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds. The topnotch soloists included trombonists Joey Sellers and Scott Whitfield, trumpeter Huffsteter, tenor John Yoakum, alto Jeff Driskill and Richmond himself, also on alto. Huffsteter was showcased again with the Florence band (he seemed to be almost everywhere, either on trumpet or mellophonium), as were trumpeters Saunders, Ron Stout and Larry Lunetta; trombonists Alex Iles, Bob McChesney and Charlie Loper; tenors Tom Peterson and Jeff Driskill, baritone Bob Efford, bassist Joel Hamilton and Florence at the keyboard. Among the highlights — Mandel's "Emily (Huffsteter), Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge (McChesney, Loper) and Florence's colorful tributes to Kenton ("Appearing in Cleveland ) and Count Basie ("Eternal Licks and Grooves").

Day 2 started with Film 2, and even though the film quality wasn't high-grade, it was good to see and hear such West Coast legends as Holman, Shorty Rogers, Bill Perkins, Frank Rosolino, Bob Cooper, Shelly Manne, Pete Jolly, Stu Williamson, Charlie Mariano, Monty Budwig and Russ Freeman, as well as Buddy DeFranco, Mel Tormé, Gerry Mulligan and the Don Ellis Orchestra. The film preceded concerts by Fischer's Jazz Corps and the New York Neophonic directed by Kaye, and a panel discussion on the Neophonic Composers (Part 1) with Fischer, Garcia, Florence, Richmond and Jim Knight. Fischer's brass-heavy Jazz Corps, conducted by son Brent Fischer, presented a wide-ranging program of standards ("Cherokee, "Lover Man ) and originals by the elder ("Hey James, "Corcovado Funebre, "Hokey Blues, "Lennie's Pennies, "Fuzz Blues, "Four Brothers @ Five.com ) and younger Fischers ("The Duke, "Stop Up ). The New York Neophonic performed Johnny Richards' "Fata Morgana and "Manzanitas — the first of which is included on the new CD New Horizons, Vol. 2, on Tantara — as well as Stephen Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By, Juan Tizol's "Caravan and two numbers from the Seals & Crofts "book, "Tahirah and "East of Ginger Trees.

Vocalist Tierney Sutton and her trio (Henry, bass; Christian Jacob, piano; Ray Brinker, drums) entertained at the Garcia dinner with three Irving Berlin tunes, after which Holman, Shank and Duane Tatro paid their respects and Garcia appeared in a video retrospective of his career. The Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra 2005 then closed the evening with the first of its two exciting concerts.

Saturday morning's film, the last of the three, included performances by Shank, Collette, vibraphonist Cal Tjader's quintet and the irrepressible Cannonball Adderley group with brother Nat on cornet, roaring through bassist Sam Jones' "Del Sasser. Next came another highlight, a panel discussion sans moderator wherein Kaye and saxophonist Billy Kerr simply talked for an hour about the New York Neophonic, weaving a perceptive and humorous narrative that kept the audience in the palm of their hands.

After lunch, eighty-three-year-old Buddy Collette, wheelchair-bound after a recent stroke, shrugged it off to conduct yet another exhilarating concert (with solos to match by saxophonists Louis Taylor and Fred Jackson, trumpeter Anne King, trombonist Ira Nepus and pianist John Campbell), after which Niehaus, Vig, Wilson and Clausen took part in Panel No. 4, The Neophonic Composers, Part 2. Shank's big band was up next, with a program whose high spots included a blistering duel between Shank and tenor Doug Webb on "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Mike Barone's "Limes Away (a.k.a. "Limehouse Blues ) and Florence's "Taking the Long Way Home. The Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra 2005 wrapped up the evening with its second concert under conductors Wilson, Vig, Niehaus and Clausen

Sunday's opening panel, The Junior Neophonic, with Wheaton, Knight, Marni Johnson, Adrian Tapia and Mike Vacarro, was quite appropriate, as it led to the poolside concert by Cerritos College and the spectacular performance by the hand-picked Junior Neophonic Orchestra of Southern California. I can't review the various selections (it's almost impossible to write in the dark, and three days of doing so had left me unwilling to continue) but trust me, these young musicians were awesome, wiping away any fear or doubt one might have had about the future of big-band Jazz, at least in the Los Angeles area.

Poston moderated the last of the half-dozen panels, this one an hour-long conversation with Bill Holman who spent at least half the time fielding questions from the audience. Often droll, always frank, Holman shared insights about his career, stories about fellow musicians, the process of composing and arranging, and, not least, his association with Stan Kenton. That set the stage for the penultimate concert, by the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, and the grand finale by Holman's band with special guest Shank on the last two numbers. The first four numbers, from Holman's CD, featured riveting solos by Stout, Martin, Saunders, alto Bruce Babad, tenors Ray Herrmann and Pete Christlieb, pianist Christian Jacob and valve trombonist Bob Enevoldsen. Even something as marvelous as Neophonic Impressions has to end sometime, and this was a great way to add the finishing touches.

I remembered that as I boarded the plane for Albuquerque, as I remembered also the pleasure of seeing and hearing so many great musicians, from headliners Holman, Shank, Florence, Wilson, Collette, Richmond and Fischer to stellar sidemen like Saunders (a consistently breathtaking soloist), Whitfield, Huffsteter, Martin, Carr, Jacob, Henry, Stout, Erskine, Shelton, Christlieb, Efford, Roger Ingram, Jerry Pinter, Ralph Razze, Dave Tull, Bob Summers, Kevin Axt, Ann Patterson, Al Viola, Jack Nimitz, Lanny Morgan, Wayne Bergeron and so many others (you know who you are). And I recalled fondly seeing and hanging out with friends old and new — Jerry Swanberg, Bob Bragonier, Roger Lewis, Dave Umemoto, Graham Carter, Bob and Dee Ann Dain, Bruce and Jan Collier, Bill Lichtenauer, to name a few — and talking with Garcia, Holman, Collette, Florence and others I've long admired. In sum, a memorable four days. Thanks, Ken, and thank you, LAJI, for keeping the flame burning. And if you missed this one . . .

The Institute's next program, Jazz West Coast 3: Legends of the West, is scheduled September 29-October 2, also at the Four Points Sheraton-LAX. The special events — are you ready for this? — include a reunion of the Chico Hamilton Quintet; an all-star big band playing the compositions and arrangements of Johnny Mandel, with Johnny himself conducting; Jazzmantics, featuring the music of John Graas; Jazz Rolls Royce (Bob Cooper's music for the Lighthouse All-Stars); Shorty Rogers' Martian Chronicles; an all-star tribute to Bud Shank who celebrated his seventy-ninth birthday in May; The Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra and Afro-Cubano (Stan Kenton's Cuban Fire and Shorty Rogers' Afro-Cuban Influence); "Jazz on the West Coast: The Lighthouse," a film by Ken Koenig; panel discussions and presentations on Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Paul Desmond, Eric Dolphy and Dr. Wesley LaViolette; and a Wednesday evening bonus event for early registrants, Jazz Themes from the West, featuring music from The Wild One (Shorty Rogers), The Subterraneans (André Previn), Slippery When Wet and Barefoot Adventure (Bud Shank).

Those scheduled to take part include Howard Rumsey, guitarist Jim Hall's trio, the Paul Horn Reunion Quintet, the Frank Morgan Quartet, the Jack Sheldon Big Band, the Herb Geller Quartet (playing the music of Lorraine Geller), the Dave Pell Octet, the Lennie Niehaus Sextet, Jack Costanzo's Latin Big Band, the Claude Williamson Trio and Allyn Ferguson's Chamber Jazz Sextet. As always, more information is available at their website.

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