Victor Feldman - Part 5: The Final Years, 1978-87
“ 'Victor was all about music, and although he had a lot of native ability he was constantly applying himself, always learning something new. He made himself into a phenomenal pianist.' ”
Looking back to 1978, it's hard to believe that in less than 10 years, Victor would no longer be with us.
Woody Herman was never out of Victor's musical life. His career in the States had begun when he joined Woody's band and he often expressed his gratitude to the Old Man for making it all happen for him. Victor once shared with me:
"Right from the first, he made me feel at home on the band. I had many chances to solo on vibes, and I even had a long drum feature which the brass players loved because it gave them a chance to rest their chops. In those days, being an alumni of the Kenton or Herman band was helpful in being accepted on the West Coast scene because so many of the first call guys had come off those bands. It was like our time together at university.
"Although I hardly knew him, I never recall anyone saying a bad word about Stan Kenton and the same holds true for the guys who played with Woody. We would do anything for him. I think the reason that they were able to hold a band together for a long time was that they were real "Men," fatherly guys who took their obligations and responsibilities seriously.
"So when Woody called, if I could make it, I always tried to return the favor. It all began with him: coming to the Coast, the Lighthouse gig, meeting [my wife] Marilyn, having my own bands, making my own records; none of this would have happened the same way without him. Ronnie Scott is another person I feel this way about. He changed my life, too, by urging me to go to the States."
The first "call" came in 1959 when Woody was invited to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival. As Gene Lees explains in Leader of the Band: The Life of Woody Herman (New York: Oxford, 1995, p. 228):
"For that 1959 festival, Woody put together a group of his veterans. By now his alumni association had grown so large that in New York and on the west coast, he could easily pull together a new band made of old members who already knew the book, or most of it. The band he assembled included: Zoot Sims, Bill Perkins, and Richie Kamuca, tenors; Don Lanphere, alto and tenor; Med Flory, baritone; Al Porcino, Bill Chase, Conte Candoli, and Ray Linn, trumpets; Urbie Green and Si Zentner among the trombones, Charlie Byrd, guitar; Victor Feldman, vibes; and the powerful Mel Lewis, drums The band played in a hot afternoon sun as civilian aircraft droned overhead; the U.S. Navy and Air Force had graciously routed their flights away from the festival. You can hear the annoying aircraft on the album derived from the concert."
Fortunately, Atlantic Records recorded the band at the festival and issued an LPWoody Herman's Big New Herd at the Monterey Jazz Festival, which has since been re-issued on CD by Koch Jazz.
Victor takes a funky vibes solo that opens "Like Some Blues Man" (which might be aptly named, "Like Some Very Slow Blues Man"), and his introductory eight bars on piano sets a jaunty pace for the following tune"Skoobeedoobee," both of which are Ted Richards originals. (Incidentally, my sons assure me that the latter tune had absolutely no relationship to the yet-to-come TV cartoon series featuring the floppy-eared hound with a similar, sounding name.)
For the record, Mel Lewis had never played with Woody's band before this MJF appearance. Had he, there would have been talk in jazz lore about the Mel Lewis Herd in addition to the references to past aggregations driven by drummers Davey Tough and Don Lamond as well as those to be commandeered by Jake Hanna and Ronnie Zito in the 1960s and the Jeff Hamilton Herd of the 1970s. Any jazz drummer worth his salt would want to take a crack at driving this band.
For confirmation of this assertion, all one need do is listen to the manner in which Mel puts the band through its paces on "(Monterey) Apple Tree." Victor's cookin' on vibes gets so hot that you can hear Woody in the background giving him two additional choruses.
According to Ralph Gleason's liner notes, Woody commented: "I wish I could take this band on the road." Gleason went on to say that "Everyone agreed that it one of the greatest bands Woody had ever stood before." Given the mutual respect and affection that Woody and Victor had for each other, it was no surprise that, when in 1978 Woody decided to do an album featuring an extended piece by Chick Corea and the songs of Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, he would turn to Victor to arrange and play on one of the tunes. The album is Chick, Donald, Walter & Woodrow (BBC/Century, 1978). On it, Victor arranged "I've Got the News," which features Tom Scott on tenor saxophone.
Also in 1978, Nat Adderley, another old friend, came calling with a request that Victor appear on his date for Galaxy Records, Orrin Keepnews new label, an album entitled A Little New York Midtown Music (Galaxy/Fantasy, 1978). Joining Nat and Victor on this excursion into neo hard bop are Johnny Griffin on tenor sax and a rhythm section of Ron Carter on bass and Roy McCurdy on drums.
Around the time of this recording, Victor had adopted "whip it up!" as a new favorite expression which he would snigger ("snuffle" might be a more apt description). I have no idea as to its source, but he would just blurt it out as one word"whipitup"and laugh at the sound of the phrase for no apparent reason at all.
Nat wrote four of the seven tunes on the album, and he asked Victor to bring up an original to the recording sessions which took place on September 17-18, 1978 at the Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, CA.
It should come as no surprise that the name Victor gave to the new chart written for this date waswait for it"Whipitup!" Like "Seven Steps to Heaven," "Agitation" and "The Artful Dodger"tunes by Victor with melodies framed over cleverly structured rhythmic phrases"Whipitup" is a wickedly fast drummer's delight that employs an insistent rhythmic vamp over which is played a simple melody with intriguing changes. Needless to say, given such a compositional "magic carpet, Johnny Griffin who, at one time was labeled "the world's fastest tenor player," just flies on it.
1978 was another very busy year in the recording studios for Victor. In addition to the projects with Woody Herman and Nat Adderley, he made albums with flutist Hubert Laws, tenor saxophonist John Klemmer and flute and reed player Joe Farrell (about which, more later). But the happiest occurrence for him that year was the call he received from Yupiteru Records, a subsidiary of a Japanese electronics firm by the same name whose owner was a huge Jazz fan. He invited Victor to cut six tracks for a jazz LP, the material and musicians to be of his own choosing.
Released as Together Again (Yupiteru, 1978), the LP reunited Victor, who plays piano exclusively, with Monty Budwig on bass and Shelly Manne on drums. Victor's playing on the date is electric and electrifying, no doubt in part due to the presence of Monty and Shelly. Moreover, the LP gives us a chance to hear a musician whose command of the piano now reflects a deep understanding of the instrument's full range of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic possibilities. His three-chorus improvisation on Bud Powell's "Budo" (Hallucinations) is composed of jazz inventions (particularly on the bridge) so perfectly original that Victor sounds almost as though he has devised a style that's sui generis.
Victor contributed two originals to the date"Money's Blues" (he could write terrific blues lines) and "Down in Cancun" (played as a bossa samba)on which he spins out an intriguing series of choruses reflecting a jazz pianist in his prime. He gets the piano rocking and rumbling on the blues track, which he closes out with some superb 12-bar exchanges with Shelly.
The strong sense of joy and good fun that emanates from Victor, Monty and Shelly making music on this recording extends through all of its tunes: the beautifully rendered ballad "Remind Me," "What Kind of Fool Am I" (which is offered as a jazz waltz), and a funky, medium-tempo version of the Motown pop hit "How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You."
Perhaps one of the reasons for the impressive growth in Victor's acoustic piano playing is that during the late 1970s and into the 1980s he was working fairly regularly at Pasquale's, a jazz club located in the Malibu Colony near his home. The club's appellation came from the Italian-given name of bassist 'Pat' Senatore, who owned and operated it along with his wife Barbara. Pat maintained a resident trio at the club that, in addition to Victor on piano, also featured from, time-to-time, Alan Broadbent, Frank Collett and Roger Kellaway along with drummers Peter Erskine, Roy McCurdy and Frankie Severino.
It was one thing for Victor to stop off at Donte's Jazz club in North Hollywood if he was doing studio work in Hollywood or at Warner Brothers in Burbank or at Universal Studios in Universal City (literally walking distance from Donte's on Lankershim Blvd). However, anyone who knows anything about Los Angeles traffic knows that a commute from coastal Malibu through the canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains prior to traversing the Simi and San Fernando Valleys is, at best, horrendous. "Pasquale's," located just up the Pacific Coast Highway (CA Highway 1) from Victor's home, was a welcome alternative for him, and he was there often.
It was also to become the site of his next, significant jazz recording, this one as part of a trio backing Joe Farrell on Farrell's Inferno (Jazz a la Cart), an LP that has never been issued to disc. On it, Joe plays flute, soprano and tenor saxophones. Joining Victor to form the rhythm section are bassist Bob Magnusson and drummer John Guerin.
Born Joe Firantello, Joe was a veteran of stratospheric trumpeter Maynard Ferguson's big band [1960- 61], a founding member of the Thad Lewis and Mel Lewis Orchestra (1966-69, and was a featured member of drummer Elvin Jones quartet from 1967-1970. As noted in the
Farrell's work with Return to Forever ultimately brought him to the West Coast, where he became a session player after leaving Chick's group. Victor met Joe in the studios and worked regularly with him both in the quartet and in a 18-piece (largely rehearsal) band that Joe fronted.
Made up of performances recorded at Pasquale's in the early 1980s, the seven tracks on Farrell's Inferno are an excellent indication of Farrell's "adventurous modal approach and his interest in purse sound. ...He was perhaps a better flautist than saxophonist, but his soprano work always had what one-time colleague-vocalist Flora Purim described as a 'singing' quality that eliminates the horn's often rather shrill character" (Richard Cook & Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed., p.497).
For the album, Farrell selected three standards, and Victor contributed two originals, one of which would you be surprised to learn was?"Whipitup!" The other Feldman original"Let's Go Dancing"a flute feature for Farrellis a wickedly fast bossa nova with a clever bridge that would be issued in 1982 as part of Victor's jazz-rock fusion album, Secret of the Andes.
Joe's 18-piece band often rehearsed at Musicians' Union Local 47, which maintained rooms for such purposes at its location on Vine Street in Hollywood. For a time, Joe and I worked together in a professional organization associated with the union, the RMA (an organization of recording musicians) and the Los Angeles Symphony. Quite coincidentally, a meeting of these entities was scheduled at the Union Hall just following a rehearsal by Joe's band. Since the time following the rehearsal and before the association meeting, Joe and I were chatting about his band when the conversation suddenly turned to Victor: Joe said, "You know, he has the best musical mind of anyone I've ever worked with. He has a love for music that knows no bounds. And I can't imagine him not swinging; even the slow stuff we play has a 'pop' to it when he's on the band. Yet, if you passed him on the street, you'd think he was an accountant!"
After our brief time together with the professional association, I lost touch with Joe and later learned that things did not end well for him. He died in 1986 from something that has been killing Jazz musicians prematurely since time immemorial. As we shall see, the timing of his death did nothing to lessen the burdens in Victor's personal life in the mid-1980's.
Next up for Victor was performing on four tracks (with featured solos on three of these) for Dark Orchid (Dark Orchid Jazz, 1981), a big band LP by legendary composer-arranger Sammy Nestico, who is probably best known for the many charts he wrote for the Count Basie band. The album, whose line-up reads like a Who's Who of musicians then active in the Hollywood studios, finds Victor in his element doing everything on these Nestico originals from playing unison lines on the Fender Rhodes with Bill Watrous' whistling on This is Love (yes, whistling!), to being the featured soloist on "Willow Gold and Shoreline Drive" (along with tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb (whose solo on this cut still leaves me with goose bumps). The band, the compositions and arrangements, and the ensemble and solo performances on Dark Orchid are the epitome of the musicianship to be found in Hollywood studios just prior to the take-over of much of this analog world by the Onslaught-of-the-Synthesizers by the end of the decade.
On September 27, 1981 Victor was part of a concert at UCLA's Royce Hall that paired alto saxophonist Art Pepper and tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims for their first and only performance together. Along with Ray Brown on bass and Billy Higgins on drums and Barney Kessel on guitar, this concert was released as Art 'N' Zoot (Discovery/Pablo).
Michael Cuscuna, who was one of the co-producers of the concert, which was part of a three-part, nine-hour special developed by Tim Owens of National Public Radio entitled Central Avenue Breakdown: A Portrait of a Jazz City ... Los Angeles, had this to say about Victor in his insert notes:
"Victor Feldman is a pianist, drummer, vibraphonist, percussionist, composer and arranger ... [whose] considerable skills made him very much in demand in Los Angeles studios, often at the expense of his Jazz career. Despite tenures with Cannonball Adderley in 1960 and Miles Davis in 1963 and a scattering of recordings as a leader and sideman, his jazz artistry remains very underrated. His performances here should go a long way toward correcting that."
It's hard to disagree with Cuscuna's assessment, listening to Victor skip and romp his way all over the keyboard during his solo on "Broadway," or as he sets the tone with an orchestral and flowing piano introduction to a bright tempo version of "The Girl from Ipanema," on which he takes three brilliant choruses between Zoot and Art's solos, or as he tears the place up with his down and dirty piano rumblings on "Breakdown Blues"
To close out 1981, Victor embarked on a sentimental journey that reunited him with tenor saxophonist Spike Robinson for whom he had played drums thirty years earlier on Spike's debut album on England's Esquire label, a date entitled The Guv'nor, 1981). Playing alto saxophone in 1951, Robinson was an American (from Kenosha, Wisconsinthe birthplace of Orson Welles) who came to England as a result of a naval posting. The reunion of sorts with Victor came about in December, 1981 when he, along with Victor, Ray Brown on bass and Johnny Guerin on drums, recorded eight songs by Harry Warren for a session that was issued as Spike Robinson Plays the Music of Harry Warren (Discovery, 1981). In August, 1983, Robinson recorded 6 additional tuned by Warren with Pete Jolly, piano, John Leitham, bass and Paul Kreibich, drums for the CD version released on HEP Records.
With Warren's wonderful melodies to improvise on and the likes of Ray Brown and Johnny Guerin backing you up, how can you go wrong? Victor certainly doesn't and offers inspired solos on "This Heart of Mine," "Chattanooga Choo Choo," and "Lulu's Back in Town," while offering Robinson his usual masterful accompaniment on an exquisite "This Is Always" and all the tunes that make up this easy-to-listen-to, but not necessarily easy-listening, recording.
March, 1983 brought Victor into the company of Pepper Adams for the first time, and happily this union was preserved on California Cookin' (Interplay). The pair are joined on this recording by Ted Curson on trumpet, Bob Magnusson on bass and drummer Carl Burnett. In his insert notes, Fred Norsworthy provides the following background for the recording:
"This album was recorded during the 15th Annual OCC Jazz Festival hold In Costa Mesa, California. The quintet was the opening act for the Bill Berry L.A. Big Band, with all members of the quintet also giving clinics and judging the college/high school Bands, which were competing during the daytime."
"It Is worth noting that Pepper's original 'Valse Celtique' had its premier performance at this festival. He was to record the tune at a later date, featuring Kenny Wheeler and Frank Foster on two different sessions. Pepper usually worked with pick-up groups during the later stages of his career and, though he was a poll- winning performer on the baritone, never achieved the prominence that Garry Mulligan reached. Although both had their own original sound, with Pepper having the harder tone, despite his always being #2 in the polls, he was, to many, the number one baritone player, always exciting and creating original music.
"This is also the first time that Pepper had worked with Victor Feldman. Ted Curson had worked with Pepper in Europe during the seventies; both Magnusson and Burnett had worked with Pepper during one of his earlier California appearances .... During the brief rehearsal time prior to the concert, Victor found some slight mistakes in Pepper's originals, which he corrected, much to Pepper's chagrin; otherwise Pepper was determined to avoid a jam session sound as an opening act. The opening number ['Valse Celtique'] used the full quintet; 'Summertime' followed as a feature for Ted Curson; Victor Feldman then offers a trio version of his original 'Last Resort;' Pepper is up next for his ballad feature, 'Now In Our Lives; the full quintet returns for the theme, Sonny Rollins original 'Oleo.'"
Victor turns in another of his patented, rhythmically action-packed solos on "Last Resort," with its Monkish bridge that completely changes the feeling of the tune, but he is a tower of power when it comes time to solo on all of the other tunes. Through his comping, rhythmic riffing, and other subtle musical devices, he does an especially fine job of serving as a group integrator to keep this date from sounding essentially like just what it isa pick-up session involving musicians who had had very little experience playing with one another before the concert.
"Pick-up session" would be the last phrase one could use to describe Victor's next album released in May, 1983 as To Chopin with Love (Hindsight) because the rehearsals to prepare it were numerous and arduous. With the marvelous John Patitucci on bass and Victor's son Trevor on drums, the release included Victor's insert notes explaining how and why the album came about:
"Frederick Francois Chopin's music has been described by music historian James Huneker as too often bejeweled, far too lugubrious, too tropical, having the exotic savor of the heated conservatory not the fresh scent of the flowers grown out in the open. He said it was desperately sentimental, some of the compositions not altogether to the taste of the present generation and anemic in feeling. He stated that more vigor, a quickening of the time pulse and a less languishing touch would rescue them from lush sentimentality. Huneker went on to note that Chopin loved the night and it's starry mysteries and that his nocturnes are true night pieces, some wearing an agitated, remorseful countenance while others are like whisperings at dusk.
"I only read these comments during the final stages of preparation for this album and was surprised to realize that I had similar reactions as a child upon hearing Chopin for the first time. I felt strangely melancholy yet deeply touched. In the course of my piano training I learned the B-flat Minor Waltz when I was ten. But then, I put Chopin (and the impressions I shared with Huneker) in the back of my mind and went on listening to Art Tatum, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and other great American jazz musicians on short wave radioEnglish weather permitting reception. Much to my mother's dismay the best broadcasts were at 5 A.M. I was working five nights a week until midnight with Terry Thomas in a show at London's West End and I was twelve years old. The sounds of American music had me captivated and I wasn't quite ready to deal with the genius of an older great composerone from Polandwhose music I have since grown to love. With my interpretations I hope to share Chopin with an audience that otherwise might not be exposed to his music and at the same time bring some surprises, sunshine, and humor to those ears already familiar with it.
"My first arrangement of a Chopin piece started before leaving England in 1955. I was playing the A-flat Major Waltz to improve my technique in my teens. At this time I was learning harmony from Charlie Parker, Al Haig and Dizzy Gillespie and found that Chopin's Waltz was really a chord progression like something Bird or Dizzy were basing their great be-bop lines on. Years later, in Los Angeles, when Lester Koenig of Contemporary Records asked me to make a trio album, I recorded the A-flat Major Waltz with Stan Levy and the late Scotty La Faro. I have included a new version of it on this album and it is dedicated to Scotty.
"I wish to express my appreciation to Trevor Feldman, 17, for his musical maturity and ability to play with the sensitivity beyond his age so necessary for a drummer playing this type of music. My thanks to John Patitucci for all the rehearsals and such marvelous playing in which he brings a uniqueness to this instrument so often neglected by the present generation. And to Chopin, who must have loved improvisation because he loved freedom-which was as precious and precarious in his time in his homeland of Poland as it is today-with all due respect, my thanks and my love."
As part of these same insert notes, Victor's jazz-pianist "buddy" John Williams (who has since gone on to become a world-famous composer of music for the movies and the conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra) wrote the following tribute to Victor:
"I met Victor Feldman just after he arrived in this country from England some twenty-five years ago. We were brought together by Henry Mancini, in whose orchestra we both played at that time.
"Victor made an instant hit with all of his fellow musicians because he was so multifaceted, highly musical and always an inspiration to play with. He exuded a love of music that was projected and passed on to anyone who came in contact with him.
His love of the classics has always been evident in his music, and in his new album treats us to reminiscences of childhood Chopin studies. As always, his work, which continues to grow and grow, delights us." John Williams, Boston, MA, June 9, 1983
During the recording sessions for the Chopin project, three of the trio's warm-up tracks were saved, and Hindsight Records released these as part of a compilation in 1998 under the title of Rio Nights (Hindsight). Included are two originals by Victor"Don't Ask Oscar" (a blues with a truly amazing bass solo by Patitucci) and "You Gave Me the Runaround"and, perhaps fittingly a quarter of a century later, a reflective and introspective seven-and-a-half minute version of "Basin Street Blues."
For a variety of reasons, the blues, musically and emotionally, became a very large factor in Victor's life as in September 1984 his beloved wife Marilyn passed away quite suddenly. This was also around the time that he would be further shattered by the news of his dear friend Shelly Manne's death from a heart attack.
Victor would also be gone a few years later as he died on May 12, 1987 at the age of 53.
In the Producer's Notes for his JVC compilation of recordings by Victor's jazz-rock Soft Shoulder and Generation Band, whose musicalthough excellentfalls outside the purely jazz scope of this piece, Mike Brown had this to say about the significance of Victor Feldman and his legacy:
"When we think of jazz legends,the names that usually come to mind most quickly are artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker... One name that is rarely heard in the context of these legends is Victor Feldman. Yet anyone familiar with his work would not deny his immense talent or indelible influence on any artist he has worked with. This reputation secured Victor Feldman's place as a musician's musician and gave him the opportunity to put his stamp on a number of now classic recordings. His work with a virtual who's who of artists ranging from, Cannonball Adderley to Steely Dan makes him a true 'legend.'"
Bob Cooper, who shared the bandstand with Victor at The Lighthouse Cafe'in Hermosa Beach, back when it all began for Victor, had this to say after his death:
"Victor was all about music and although he had a lot of native ability he was constantly applying himself, always learning something new. He made himself into a phenomenal pianist; a guy who could play something that would really turn your head around. It seemed like he was everywhere in the studios, but he always had something going on around town with his trio, over at Donte's with [tenor saxophonists] Tom Scott or Ernie Watts or involved with some concert project. He wasn't an open man. He always seemed to be absorbed in his own thoughts. But if you asked him something or needed him for anything, he would stop whatever he was doing and help you right away. He was very successful commercially; he took care of his family in style. There can be a lot of tension on a studio gig, but if he was on the date, his knowledge and ability was a real calming influence.'
"Victor was a real musical presence and I'll miss him terribly."
Bob wasn't alone.