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A Big Band Spectacular? You Bet Your Brass!

Jack Bowers By

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On May 23, Betty and I flew to Los Angeles to attend the L.A. Jazz Institute's semi-annual ode to swinging, this one labeled Big Band Spectacular and slated for Thursday through Sunday, May 25-28. We rearranged our schedule to arrive a day early, even before Wednesday's "bonus" event, to attend the funeral of a longtime friend and colleague. As the service was held mid-afternoon Wednesday in Inglewood, we returned to the Westin LAX Hotel, scene of the week's events, around suppertime. Betty was tired and went to our room but I thought I'd check out the evening's star attraction, Gordon Goodwin's rollicking Big Phat Band, not realizing that the extra performance wasn't included in our registration fee. I could have parted with another $25 to sit in on the concert but decided to pass; there would be more than enough music to groove on in the days ahead.

And so the festivities began for us early Thursday morning with the first of four films canvassing big-band jazz from the 1920s to the transitional post-swing and pre-bop era of the early '40s. I hadn't planned to write anything about this year's event but old habits die hard, and it wasn't long before I was seated in the rear of a darkened ballroom, scribbling largely illegible notes and wondering why I was unable to simply relax and enjoy the music. Well, if write we must, I said to myself, let us at least approach the enterprise from a different angle. Agreed. Instead of the day-to-day summary set forth in years past, we would devise a list of categories—the "Best of BBS," so to speak—not only to give the reader a sense of what took place during the four-day event but to underline the sights and sounds that proved to be most memorable from our vantage point in the back row. So without further ado, here we go...

Best Individual Performance

There were a lot of them, making the choice quite difficult. In the end, however, one performance outshone the rest, and it came midway through the BBS's twenty-seventh and final concert Sunday evening by the Tom Kubis Big Band when drummer Ray Brinker and trombonist Andy Martin absolutely smoked Juan Tizol's venerable "Caravan." Brinker, a fine drummer in any context, produced an extended solo that was so dynamic and technically brilliant it might have made even the curmudgeonly and ultra-competitive Buddy Rich smile. Brinker's tour de force was preceded by Martin's eloquent and acrobatic solo, even more persuasive than one is used to hearing from one of the West Coast's foremost trombone masters. Two unequivocal thumbs up (three, if we had that many).

Best Ensemble Performance

A slightly easier call. At Sunday's jazz brunch, the incomparable Bill Holman's superlative rehearsal band delivered a magnificent performance of classical composer Joaquin Rodrigo's three-movement Concierto de Aranjuez, written in 1939 for guitar and orchestra—which was all the more remarkable as Holman's ensemble has no guitar. It does, however, have the resourceful Christian Jacob at the keyboard and an all-star in every other chair (acceptance into Holman's long-running band is among the area's most sought-after honors). The band was squarely on the mark from note one, navigating the concerto's dense and demanding passages with what seemed to be relative ease (though there's no doubt a lot of work must have gone into making it appear that effortless). It's one thing to perform flawlessly such a strenuous piece of music; it's quite another to do so without seeming to work up a decent sweat. On a scale of one to ten, a well-earned perfect score (with extra props for Holman's fabulous chart).

Best Concert Start to Finish

Again, there were a number of strong contenders, but the ones that caught my ear were those led by world-class arrangers performing their own material: Mike Barone, Carl Saunders, Scott Whitfield, Gary Urwin, Les Hooper, Tom Kubis. Peter Myers would be in the mix but I missed most of his Sunday evening concert, as Betty and I were having supper with two grandsons who are living in L.A. and one daughter-in-law. Irwin's cause was helped by the presence of guest trombonist Bill Watrous (who later led his own band), Saunders, Whitfield and Kubis by their performances as sidemen as well as leaders. In the end, the decision came down to choice of material, with Barone earning the slimmest of edges. But all of the concerts named, and some others as well (Roger Neumann's Rather Large Band and the Phil Norman Tentet spring immediately to mind), were more than worth the price of admission.

Iron-man Award

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