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Book Excerpts

Vince Guaraldi at the Piano

By Published: May 8, 2012
Bobo's foot-stomping two-beat became stronger as Tjader worked the vibes, hanging on unexpected notes, drifting from and back into the melody line. All five men could be heard talking just below the music, trading encouraging and triumphant comments: a dialogue of enthusiastic chatter every bit as deftly choreographed as the music.

Tjader faded away from his extended solo—more applause—and then it was Guaraldi's turn. The pianist teased a sultry, sassy, single-note melody from his instrument: runs and trills from one end of the keyboard to the other, carrying echoes of Red Garland—always, in interviews, one of Guaraldi's favorite influences—and all strongly suggestive of Gershwin's core melody, but each somehow its own distinct variation. The runs became faster, more complex, more flamboyantly out there ... and yet, still, listeners could detect the Gershwinesque elements needed to evoke that same core melody. Guaraldi shifted to chords, now grooving smoothly to McKibbon and Bobo's steady beats; then, suddenly, the pianist all but mashed the palms of his small hands into the keys, extracting pleasing sounds seemingly through sheer force of will.

Guaraldi subsided once again to a supportive position—to a very enthusiastic burst of applause—and McKibbon took over. Tjader returned to the foreground, DeFranco's clarinet now adding some shading, as the guys brought the song home.

This was smooth, seemingly effortless musical synergy: slightly more than 13 minutes of delectable work on a song whose simple, repetitive melody had become (and would become, for decades yet to come) redundant and boring in lesser improvisational hands.

The applause now was longer, louder: Folks were paying attention.

After a fast countdown, Guaraldi swung into the saddle with the lively eight-bar opener to Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
's "Now's the Time." If the combo's first number had been smooth and swinging, this was closer to jump jazz, Bobo and McKibbon laying down a rapid beat that took no prisoners. DeFranco once again earned the first lengthy solo, Guaraldi comping chords behind the sparkling clarinet riffs. The intensity built, DeFranco somehow remaining in front of the piano, bass and drums, all of them chasing the clarinet into ever-brighter bursts of crowd-pleasing sound.

Then, after DeFranco's well-deserved round of applause, came The Moment of Awesomeness.

"The hero of the set was pianist Vince Guaraldi," wrote one critic. "The little San Franciscan came closer to winning a standing ovation than any other performer. Digging in solidly, Guaraldi worked on 'Now's the Time' with such vigor that the entire group was inspired to provide some of the most stimulating music of the evening."

Guaraldi was all over the keyboard; he whipped through an invigorating solo that brought not just applause, but also cheers. Tjader, retrieving the lead, rose to the challenge, his hands a blur as his mallets flew. Bobo and McKibbon picked up the pace and intensity. Then, suddenly, it was less a solo and more a duet, with Guaraldi's chords sharing the same exhilarating musical space as Tjader's melody line. Another burst of applause, and then McKibbon earned another turn in the spotlight, playing with enthusiastic vigor.

The bassist's fellow musicians gradually returned, their collaborative volume and intensity building behind DeFranco's lead.

When the song concluded, 14 minutes later, everybody in the audience knew they'd been present for a glimpse of jazz perfection: one for the history books. This was one of those moments described by New Yorker jazz columnist Whitney Balliett as "the sound of surprise": a rare flash of shared improvisational magnificence that all jazz fans hope to experience at least once in their lives.

(And yet, despite the significance of this performance to the careers of both Tjader and Guaraldi, an entire half-century would pass before the public-at-large could share the moment, with the long overdue 2008 release of The Best of Cal Tjader: Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival. This magnificent CD opens with the entire, never-before-released 1958 set. Sheer wonderfulness, as Bill Cosby might have said.)

DeFranco left the stage after this number, to an appreciative round of applause; he was replaced by Mongo Santamaria
Mongo Santamaria
Mongo Santamaria
1922 - 2003
, whose vibrant work on congas highlighted the subsequent Latin-hued bossa nova numbers. The musicians launched into a peppy rendition of Ray Bryant
Ray Bryant
Ray Bryant
1931 - 2011
's "Cubano Chant," followed by an equally vibrant sprint through Tjader's own "Tumbao," the latter a ferocious descarga (a style of Cuban music designed as a dance-laden "jam session"). Both of these heavily percussive numbers were short, leaving little room for solos, although the crowd clearly enjoyed the rhythmic hijinks from both Bobo and Santamaria.

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