Viva Stan! Viva Woody! Viva Poston!
I've now attended three of the semi-annual gatherings sponsored by Ken Poston and the Los Angeles Jazz Institute, and have learned that even though the performers and programs vary, there's one truism you can take to the bank: just when you're thinking "it can't get any better than this, it gets better than this. The most recent event, Encores in Big Band Jazz: Artistry in Rhythm Meets the Woodchoppers Ball, which celebrated the music and the legacy of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, was a cornucopia of marvelous sights, sounds and camaraderie, one that should be tenderly inscribed in everyone's book of memories and reclaimed whenever he or she wishes to recall those mystical moments that raise life beyond the ordinary and into the sublime.
Encores, held May 25-28 at the Four Points Sheraton-LAX hotel, was enlivened by three vintage film presentations, seven provocative panel discussions and sixteen superb concerts, all but one performed by world-class big bands whose power, precision and bravado left their audiences breathless and clamoring for more. The exception was a solo recital Sunday afternoon by one of the world's most accomplished Jazz composer / arranger / pianists, Bob Florence. Maynard Ferguson's Big Bop Nouveau, which performed for an SRO audience Saturday evening, is actually a nonet (plus Maynard), but sounds so much like a big band that we won't split hairs and will number it with the larger ensembles.
While this was the third time around for me, it marked a first in that I was accompanied by my wife, Betty, who was attending only her second large-scale Jazz event in our twenty-six years together (the first was last year's Prescott, AZ, Jazz Summit). Even though this was akin to running a marathon for her, she persevered to the finish line, listening intently to almost every concert and soaking up as much of the atmosphere and musical shop talk as she could. Betty did doze off a couple of times, but that's understandable (I keep telling those trumpeters to play louder!). As a whole, however, it was a positive experience for her, another memorable one for me.
We arrived early Thursday afternoon (the pre-event bus tour of Kenton sites was still in progress), and after checking in at the hotel and unloading the luggage, headed straight for the first panel discussion, "Keepers of the Flame: Maintaining the Legacy, moderated by Kirk Silsbee and featuring Herman alums Frank Tiberi (the orchestra's present leader) and Mike Brignola, and Kentonites Mike Vax and Joel Kaye. The breezy and instructive forum was followed half an hour later by the first of the concerts, with trumpeter Vax leading his hard-charging band of Kenton alumni in an inspired performance whose highlights included trombonist Dale Devoe's "Alex's Tune," Johnny Richards' "Nada Mas (arranged by Kaye), Norm Tompach's exquisite arrangement of Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are featuring Florence, Kim Richmond's refurbished treatment of Ray Wetzel's classic "Intermission Riff (in which he transcribed Carl Fontana's trombone solo for the ensemble) and Florence's picturesque salute to Kenton, "Appearing in Cleveland. Vax was featured on "Vax Attacks, a Lennie Niehaus chart written especially for him. Others making their mark included saxophonists Richmond, Kaye, Jerry Pinter and Billy Kerr; trumpeters Steve Huffsteter and John Daversa, trombonist Scott Whitfield, bassist Kristen Korb and drummer Gary Hobbs, the last a sturdy mainstay in several bands during the weekend.
Next came the dinner break (none too soon for Betty), after which we enjoyed a pretty decent closing act, the newest edition of the Woody Herman Orchestra directed by Tiberi who sat in for Woody on clarinet, tenor and alto sax. The program was a mixture of old and new including the indispensable "Apple Honey and "Four Brothers, a lovely reading of "Body and Soul showcasing trumpeter Ron Stout, trombonist John Fedchock's wonderful arrangement of another standard, "Laura, on which he delivered one of his typically breathtaking high-register solos, a couple of songs ("I've Got the World on a String, "I've Got News for You ) by the band's excellent vocalist, Brienn Perry, and Bill Holman's offbeat arrangement of "After You've Gone. The band closed the set with an entertaining version of the venerable "Woodchoppers Ball. The second set included one vocal by Perry, on "Sonny Boy, Fedchock's bright arrangement of "Theme for Ernie, Horace Silver's finger-snapping "Opus de Funk and the dramatic finale, "Fanfare for the Common Man.