Back in the early 1970s bassist Buddy Clark and saxophonist Med Flory conceived a brilliant idea: to form a group (primarily a reed section with rhythm) that would use orchestrated arrangements of saxophonist Charlie Parker's transcendent bop solos as the basis for its music. As for a name, nothing less than SuperSax would suffice. The nine-piece group made its debut in 1972 and was an immediate hit with US audiences on the West Coast and fans around the world. SuperSax produced a dozen well-received albums and earned a Grammy award in 1974 for Best Performance by a Jazz Group. Besides its co-founders, the SuperSax alumni roster embodies such well-known names as Bill Perkins, Warne Marsh, Conte Candoli, Jack Nimitz, Frank Rosolino, Lanny Morgan, Jake Hanna, Lou Levy, Carl Fontana, Blue Mitchell and Jay Migliori. After Clark left the group in 1975, Flory soldiered on, playing and recording with SuperSax into the late 1990s.
Fast-forward to 2010, when Santa Fe-based drummer Cal Haines had an ingenious idea of his own: why couldn't there be a renewed version of SuperSax in New Mexico? Inspired by the thought, Haines set about unearthing the talent needed to stock such a precision-oriented group and found that, yes, there were enough first-class musicians (especially saxophonists) in the state to make the SuperSax concept a reality. Haines recruited five of the best to wrestle with Parker's finger-busting solos, and enlisted pianist Bert Dalton and bassist Michael Glynn to round out the rhythm section. Adding a ninth member to the ensemble was both a no-brainer and a stroke of genius: no less than trumpeter Bobby Shew, a world-renowned soloist and section player who returned to his native New Mexico from California about four years ago.
Following several grueling rehearsals all systems were go, and in May 2011, with Flory's blessing (he even shared a few charts), SuperSax New Mexico made its debut with a concert in Santa Fe. After a second performance, this one in Los Alamos, the group was ready for "prime time," arriving in Albuquerque on December 1 for a one-night stand at The Outpost Performing Space, a "must-see" concert that was sold out well in advance. Besides Shew and the rhythm section, SuperSax boasted a front line of altos Arlen Asher and Dave Anderson, tenors Lee Taylor and Kanoa Kaluhiwa, and baritone Glenn Kostur. From the outset (a fast-paced "Blue 'n Boogie") it was clear they had their work cut out for them, but the "saxophone quintet" didn't disappoint, rigorously harnessing Bird's irrepressible flights in a two-set narrative that encompassed a baker's dozen themes. In the first, "Boogie" was followed in order by "Just Friends," "Confirmation," "Groovin' High," "If I Should Lose You," "Now's the Time" and "A Night in Tunisia." Shew, Dalton and Glynn handled the solo work until late in the set, at which point Taylor framed a sharp and crowd-pleasing solo on "Now's the Time" and Kostur and Kaluhiwa followed suit on "Tunisia."
The second set opened with the relatively self-controlled "Cool Blues," which was followed by "Star Eyes," "Lover Man" (a laid-back showcase for Shew and Asher), "Salt Peanuts," "Parker's Mood" and "Bebop." The saxophones had their moments, with Anderson soloing sharply on "Star Eyes," Kostur on "Bebop," while Shew was his usual perceptive and unflappable self (muted on "Cool Blues"). In the end, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that SuperSax had lived up to its name, or that Haines' idea was not only sound but greatly appreciated, as evidenced by the prolonged and enthusiastic standing ovation that crowned the second set. An encore performance in the offing? Let us hope so.
In a Holiday Mood
Two evenings later, Betty and I were at the venerable San Felipe de Neri church in Albuquerque's Old Town for a concert of a different nature, this one by a brass quintet (two trumpets, French horn, trombone, bass trombone). The first part was devoted to traditional works for quintet by Mozart, J.S. Bach, Giovanni Gabrieli, Claude Debussy and others, the second to familiar holiday fare from hymns to themes by Leroy Anderson ("Sleigh Ride"), Tchaikovsky (dances from "The Nutcracker"), Ralph Blaine / Hugh Martin ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") and Jule Styne ("Let It Snow"). The acoustics in the church were marvelous, the quintet equally so throughout the performance. For the record, the group was comprised of trumpeters John Marchiando (first trumpet with the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra before its demise a year or so ago) and Brynn Rector, French hornist Nathan Ukens, trombonist Byron Herrington and bass trombonist Jeremy Van Hoy. Well done!
Remembering Russ Garcia
While many people may remember Russ Garcia, who died November 20 at his home in Kerikeri, New Zealand, at age ninety-five, for his remarkable career as a composer-arranger for Hollywood films and television series, and as an educator whose tutelage enlightened a number of world-class West Coast musicians, what quickens my memory is that Garcia was one of those rare individuals who not only had a dream but actually lived it. In 1966 he turned his back on Hollywood, sold his home and sailed across the Pacific with his wife Gina to start a new life, one that was still filled with music but devoted this time to spreading the ecumenical message of the Baha'i Faith, which he did until the very end of his life. While some may have thought that strange (Garcia was an in-demand Hollywood music-maker when he decided to recompose his life), people are motivated by various premises and criteria, and there's no doubt that Russ and Gina were quite happy in New Zealand, far from the bright lights and glamour of the life they once led in California. Regardless of what others may have thought, Garcia chose to do what was important to him, which is not a bad way to live.
The particulars of Garcia's early life and Hollywood career are fairly well known: started playing trumpet, later French horn, and was a musical prodigy whose arrangement of "Stardust" was performed by the Oakland Symphony Orchestra when he was a teenager. Born with a gift for writing music quickly for groups of any size and make-up, Garcia studied every instrument in the symphony orchestra to learn first-hand how each was played. As a young man, he conducted the West Hollywood Symphony for two years. After taking over as music director of the radio show This Is Our America, he was in constant demand as a composer / arranger for radio, motion pictures and big bands. After service in World War II, Garcia joined the faculty of the Westlake School of Music in Hollywood, where his students included Bill Holman, Bob Graettinger and Gene Puerling (who later became music director of the Hi-Los). Garcia compiled a number of his lectures in the textbook "The Professional Arranger Composer," which has been translated into several languages and continues to be used today.
Garcia had begun writing for films in 1946, and when Westlake closed its doors he pursued a studio career, with work on The Glenn Miller Story in 1952 leading to a 15-year tenure at Universal Pictures alongside such other well-known arrangers as Pete Rugolo and Benny Carter. During that time he was often called upon to ghost-write orchestrations for records and films that other arrangers couldn't finish in time. He also worked for Warner Bros. and Disney as well as on TV series like Rawhide, Laredo and The Virginian, all the while arranging for jazz vocalists including Anita O'Day and Frances Faye, writing for such other stars as Judy Garland, Julie London, Oscar Peterson, Mel Torme and Margaret Whiting, and leading his own group, the Wigville Band, featuring Charlie Mariano, Jimmy Giuffre and the brothers Pete and Conte Candoli. In 1957 he served as arranger and music director on Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald's classic Porgy & Bess sessions.
In the early 1960s, Garcia wrote arrangements for Stan Kenton's groundbreaking Neophonic Orchestra and led his own Russ Garcia Big Band. In 2005, the Los Angeles Jazz Institute honored him for his more than 60 years of contributions to jazz. In 2007, he and vocalist Shaynee Rainbolt collaborated on the first album of Garcia originals, Charmed Life, which earned MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) awards, for Best Jazz Recording and Best Song ("I Remember Music," with lyrics by Garcia and Rainbolt). There is so much more that could be said and written but what is important to remember about Russ Garcia is that he was the kind of man who could laugh away the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's blunder in awarding an Oscar for best musical score (two decades after the fact) not to Garcia, who wrote the score for Charlie Chaplin's 1952 film Limelight, but to arranger Larry Russell, who wasn't involved in the film in any way. He'd had enough honors, Garcia said in an interview with Marc Myers who writes the online column JazzWax. If Larry Russell's family was happy with the Oscar that was fine with him. The only difference was that his obituary would not read, as it should have, "Academy Award-Winning Composer-Arranger Russ Garcia . . ." That didn't bother Garcia whose long and productive life was one that almost anyone would envy.
As this was being written, word came of the passing at age 81 of another musical giant, valve trombonist / composer / arranger Bob Brookmeyer, whose most recent album, Standards, was released only weeks before his death. We'll have more to say about that in our next column.
On the Horizon
If you'd like to know what "Music for Moderns" means, you can find out next May 24-27 when the L.A Jazz Institute presents its next extravaganza at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel. Its subtitle is "Big Bands from the Atomic Age," which began at the end of World War II and included the birth of bebop and "progressive" jazz. The lineup (so far) includes modern incarnations of bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Boyd Raeburn, Elliot Lawrence, Benny Goodman (featuring Ken Peplowski), Woody Herman, Charlie Barnet, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Charlie Ventura, Artie Shaw, Chubby Jackson, Gil Fuller and Claude Thornhill (the last with arrangements by Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan). That's in addition to the music of Tadd Dameron, Duke Ellington's Liberian Suite and Herman's Ebony Concerto and Summer Sequence. For information, phone 562-200-5477 or go online to lajazzinstitute.org
And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin' . . . !
New and Noteworthy
1. Stan Kenton / NOVA Jazz Orchestra, Double Feature, Vol. 2 (Tantara Productions)
2. The Phil Norman Tentet, Encore (MAMA)
3. Rodger Fox's Wellington Jazz Orchestra, Journey Home (Tbone)
4. Cecilia Coleman Big Band, Oh Boy! (Interplay)
5. Gerald Wilson Orchestra, Legacy (Mack Avenue)
6. Sandvika Storband, A Novel Approach (Sandvika Storband)
7. Dietrich Koch Big Band, Berlin Cookbook (Mons)
8. Howard University Jazz Ensemble, Moonwalk (HUJE Jazz)
9. Nelson Faria / hr Big Band, Live in Frankfurt (Self Published)
10. Landes Jugend Jazz Orchester Hessen, A Tribute to Kenny Napper (Mons)
11. University of Memphis, Out of the Bluffs (UMR)
12. Joakim Milder, Takeaway (Apart Records)
13. Band of Bones, Untitled (BB Productions)
14. Deutsche Oper Berlin Big Band, How Long Is Now? (Mons)
15. University of the Arts School of Music, Big Band (Self Published)