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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

This year's blue ribbon for stamina goes to Jamie Hovorka who played lead and / or jazz trumpet in no less than nine separate bands. As usual, Saunders and fellow trumpeter Bob Summers were heard often (seven bands apiece) while Whitfield played in half a dozen. But Hovorka outdistanced them all, and at the end didn't seem the least bit winded.

Best Performance by an Amateur

No contest here. Drummer Kaylah Ivey's talent and enthusiasm fairly lit up the ballroom as she reinforced an otherwise splendid concert by director Bruce Babad 's Fullerton College Jazz Ensemble. While lending the band much of its fire and propulsion, the irrepressible Ivey never missed a beat—and she's only a sophomore!

Most Pleasant Surprise

That would have to be John Stephens' BIG Bluzz Band, perhaps because I wasn't expecting much from it. As it turns out, the Bluzz Band's set was surprisingly charming with sharp readings of "Take the 'A' Train," "Mood Indigo," "Jumpin' at the Woodside," "Witchcraft," Gerald Wilson's "Viva Tirado" (Stephens was a longtime member of Wilson's reed section) and drummer Paul Kreibich's showcase, "The Brush Off" (Kreibich celebrated his sixty-second birthday on May 24, one day before the concert).

Newcomer of the Year

There weren't many, but one who stood out in the sparse crowd was the Israeli-born trombonist Ido Meshulam who performed with the Joey Sellers Jazz Aggregation, the Steve Huffsteter Big Band, the Ron King Big Band and Roger Neumann's Rather Large Band. A strong soloist with a pristine sound. No wonder his talents were in demand.

Best Charts

Did you actually think I was going to choose between Mike Barone, Gary Urwin, Carl Saunders and Tom Kubis? Needless to say, it's a four-way tie among them with Scott Whitfield, Pete Myers, Brent Fisher , Bill Cunliffe, Les Hooper and David Angel no more than a step or so behind. That's why Ken Poston called it a Big Band Spectacular. No argument here.

Most Pleasant Surprise

Toward the end of an impressive hour-long concert, Kubis announced that his band would be playing the straight-ahead swinger "Be-Bop-a-Palooza" and asked, "Is Ann Patterson still here?" (Patterson's band, Maiden Voyage, had played the concert leading to his). When someone replied, "She's in the green room (the backstage area reserved for musicians)," Kubis said, "See if you can find her. And tell her to bring her horn." Patterson soon emerged, totally surprised, with alto in hand. "Come up onstage," Kubis said. "We'd like you to play this one with us." After explaining to Patterson that it was a tune based on rhythm changes and letting her know the key, Patterson (alto) and Kubis (tenor) were off and running, much to the delight of the audience. What ensued were their best solos of the evening, followed by equally persuasive ad libs by trombonist Martin, baritone Jay Mason and bassist Trey Henry. After a standing ovation, Kubis wrapped up the concert and the Spectacular with an updated arrangement of the trad jazz favorite "Bill Bailey," featuring pianist Jim Cox.

Best Scheduling Decision

Leading off on Thursday afternoon with the superlative Mike Barone Big Band. If what Barone and Co. had to say didn't whet your appetite and leave you looking forward to more of the same, you must have somehow signed up for the wrong event and were on the threshold of what promised to be a long and ear-splitting weekend.

The "Star Is Born" Award

This one goes to pianist Christian Jacob who not only played marvelously all week but wrote the score for Clint Eastwood's latest film, "Sully," which stars Tom Hanks as the heroic pilot Chesley Sullenberger who landed his damaged plane in the Hudson River, saving the lives of everyone on board. Onward and upward, Christian.

Lone Downer of the Week

While Poston's enterprises keep getting better and better, the audience keeps getting smaller and smaller. Some of that is no doubt caused by attrition (the patrons aren't getting any younger), some by economics (it does take more than a few bucks to travel from faraway places to attend these events). Whatever the reasons, there seem to be fewer bodies on the scene with each passing year, and Big Band Spectacular was no exception. Kudos to Poston and the LAJI for continuing to defy the odds and offer high-quality jazz, no matter how much red ink may be flowing.

The "What Have I Overlooked" Department

Other bands performing (not all of which I saw) included ensembles led by trumpeters Mike Price (playing mostly Ellington songs) and John Daversa and drummer Bernie Dresel; the Luckman Jazz Orchestra led by Charles Owens; the Saddleback College Jazz Combo (a quintet) and the JazzAmerica Traditional Jazz Band, composed of youngsters ages 12-20 performing music from jazz's earliest years and directed by bassist Richard Simon.

Well, that about sums it up. Twenty-seven concerts, twenty-three by professional bands, plus films and panel discussions, every one of them entertaining in its own way. After a winner like that, what does one do for an encore? Well, in October Poston and the LAJI will present a four-day tribute to the music of Gerry Mulligan. Sounds like another humdinger. You'll find details at the web site, lajazzinstitute.org.

DIVA Is Twenty-Five Years Old? You've Got to Be Kidding!

On second thought, there is every reason to believe that may be true, not the least of which is a statement to that effect from DIVA's co-founder and driving force, drummer Sherrie Maricle. And she should know. Actually, DIVA has big plans to help mark the historic annum but needs your help to carry them out. One of the ventures is a new CD, "DIVA Plays DIVA," with music by members or alumnae of the band: Roxy Cross, Noriko Ueda, Jennifer Krupa, Janelle Reichman , Leigh Pilzer, Sara Jacovino, Alexa Tarantino, Barbara Laronga (who performed with two bands in L.A.) and Tomoko Ohno. You'll find more about the fan-funded enterprise (plus ways you can help and rewards for doing so) at artistshare.com

On a more personal note...
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