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"A Swingin' Affair" Outshines Its Name

Jack Bowers By

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With an appreciative bow and genial tip of the hat to the late Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra, the Los Angeles Jazz Institute named its semi-annual big-band soiree May 21-24 at the Sheraton LAX Four Points Hotel "A Swingin' Affair." Was the event able to live up to its name? In the immortal words of Gov. Sarah Palin, "You betcha!"

As is always true of these events, "A Swingin' Affair" was more marathon than sprint with twenty large ensembles performing in four days in addition to three films, four panel discussions, memorial tributes to Bud Shank and Bob Florence, and an audio-visual presentation by Ken Poston marking the sixtieth anniversary of trumpeter Miles Davis' groundbreaking album, The Birth of the Cool.

Prologue

There was a "bonus" event on Wednesday, May 20, but as it involved close to a ten-hour bus ride to Las Vegas and back, departing around 7:30 a.m. and returning near midnight, Betty and I decided to pass, arriving instead at the Sheraton Four Points at roughly one o'clock Wednesday afternoon. The concert that evening at the Tropicana Hotel celebrated the golden anniversary of the Stan Kenton Orchestra's notable recording, Live from the Las Vegas Tropicana. We were told that at least two members of that 1959 Kenton group, saxophonists Bill Trujillo and Billy Root, were among the performers, and the ensemble was conducted by Kenton alumnus Carl Saunders. While that was happening, Betty and I rested and prepared ourselves mentally and physically for what lay ahead.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

As those who had ridden the three buses to Vegas and back returned late the evening before, Thursday's session started at noon with the first of four poolside concerts, this one by the Santa Monica College Jazz Ensemble directed by Keith Fiddmont. The group opened with four tepid vocals ("Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "What a Difference a Day Made," "Just You, Just Me," "God Bless the Child") before the first instrumental. I didn't catch the name of that one, but the ensemble completed the program with credible readings of "Shiny Stockings," "Killer Joe," "Moanin'" and "Jeannine."

From poolside, we moved indoors to the California Ballroom for a performance by the Les Hooper Big Band, led by the seven-time Gammy Award-nominated composer / arranger who does much of his writing for films and television. Hooper favors a heavy backbeat, which was evident on three of the first four numbers (his "Rooster Parade," "What's Your Hurry" and "How About a Hand for the Band," the last with rhythmic hand-clapping by members of the ensemble). Between them was one straight-ahead chart, Miles Davis' "Freddie the Freeloader," featuring alto saxophonist Bruce Babad. The next number, "Guy Noir's Younger Brother," a takeoff on Garrison Keillor's seedy private eye on A Prairie Home Companion, included apposite trombone solo and narration by the "younger Noir," a.k.a. Bruce Otto. The title of the next number, "Barn Burner," speaks for itself—an up-tempo swinger with solos to match by alto Jeff Driskill, trumpeter Ron King and trombonist Jacques Voyemant. Hooper blended Gershwin's "Summertime" with Davis' "All Blues," stirred in another of his originals, "Too Much Coffee" (featuring tenor Kevin Garren) and closed with "Look What They've Done to My Song," giving half a dozen members of the band a chance to stretch.

Next up was the first of four lively and engaging panel discussions in the smaller San Diego Room, moderated by Larry Hathaway with bandleaders Hooper, John Altman and Frank Capp comprising the panel. As usual, humorous anecdotes and reminiscences abounded, but as they are far more entertaining in person than in print, we won't burden you by attempting to summarize them.

There was one more concert before the supper break, this one by Londoner Altman's band. We'd read that Altman is an Emmy-winning soundtrack composer, as well as an arranger, orchestrator and conductor who has worked on a dozen platinum albums by various artists. What his bio didn't say is that he's also a world-class saxophonist, as he proved on a curved soprano on the impulsive opener, "Our Love Is Here to Stay." Oddly, the band's second number was titled "The Opener," followed by a Jazzed-up version of Rudolf Friml's "Chansonette" (perhaps better known as "The Donkey Serenade") and the venerable "Lester Left Town," showcasing Pete Christlieb on tenor and Andy Martin on trombone. The next two numbers, Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring" (whose melody was played by tubaist Doug Tornquist) and Mario Bauza's "Mambo Inn," are always a pleasure to hear. Altman's "West Coast Chatter," composed especially for the occasion, is a medium-tempo charmer written in the style of Gerry Mulligan. The band wrapped up its session with the Harry Warren standard "I Wish I Knew" (with Altman returning on alto), his "Foregone Conclusion" and Gigi Gryce's "Minority." Besides those mentioned, there were handsome solos by altos Sal Lozano and Danny House, tenor Rob Lockart, baritone Bob Efford, trombonists Otto and Charlie Morillas, pianist Tom Ranier and bassist John Belzaguy.

After supper it was the Frank Capp Juggernaut's turn to swing, thundering zestfully through two sets' worth of luminous charts from the Count Basie book and elsewhere, mainly by arrangers Neal Hefti, Sammy Nestico and Frank Foster. The band showed up with one tenor chair empty; Pete Christlieb had been delayed. Capp asked, "Is there a tenor in the house?" and Roger Neumann responded, saxophone in hand, to sit for the first two numbers until "the late" Mr. Christlieb arrived in time to take his seat for Nestico's "A Warm Breeze." Trumpeter Bob Summers was showcased on Nestico's "Katie" and Foster's "Shiny Stockings," the trombone section (Morillas, Alan Kaplan, Bob McChesney) on Hefti's aptly named "Bag o' Bones." Carl Saunders crafted the first of many mind-blowing trumpet solos on "It Might as Well Be Spring," pianist John Proulx was out front on Hefti's "Girl Talk" (arranged by Nat Pierce), and the band wrapped up Set 1 with a buoyant version of the standard "It Could Happen to You," on which Proulx doubled as vocalist.

Hefti was in the forefront on Set 2, which opened with his "Flight of the Foo Birds" and included "Dinner with My Friends" and "Li'l Darlin.'" Christlieb was featured on the plaintive ballad "We'll Be Together Again," fleet-fingered alto Lanny Morgan on a typically frenetic reading of Ray Noble's "Cherokee," Summers on Benny Golson's "I Remember Clifford." Juggernaut then rang down the curtain on opening day with Basie's "One O'Clock Jump" (solos by Proulx, baritone Adam Schroeder—who stepped in at the last moment for an ailing Jack Nimitz—tenor Terry Harrington, guitarist Barry Zweig and drummer Capp).

Friday, May 22, 2009

Friday's session got off to a more customary start with the first of three engaging film presentations, "Big Bands in the Movies," highlighting onscreen appearances by Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman. The film was followed at 10:45 by a second panel discussion as moderator Ken Borgers guided bandleaders Neumann, Ann Patterson and Chris Walden through a series of sharp and humorous reminiscences about their careers and the music profession in general.

At noon, it was back to poolside for a hurried snack and a performance by the UCLA Jazz Ensemble led by Charley Harrison. After opening with a couple of Jazz standards (Duke Pearson's "Jeannine," Thad Jones' "Mean What You Say") and Frank Mantooth's definitive arrangement of "Young and Foolish," the band embarked on a three-song salute to Ellington that included "Harlem Airshaft," "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" (splendid vocal by Alexandra Isley) and a movement from the Duke's Far East Suite that featured clarinetist Anna Kent. The ensemble exited stage right with Frank Foster's blistering "Hey Jim" from the Basie book.

Ann Patterson's (usually) all-female ensemble, Maiden Voyage, opened the afternoon session in the California Ballroom. Two empty trumpet chairs were filled by Bob O'Donnell and Jeff Kaye (as Patterson quipped, "Every band should have a couple of token guys..."). MV thundered through "There'll Never Be Another You" (crackling solos by trumpeter Ann King, pianist Liz Kinnon and Patterson on alto), then slowed the pace for Dick Cary's trim arrangement of Cedar Walton's "Bolivia." The late Melba Liston arranged the lovely "My Reverie," with trombonist Kari Harris playing Melba's part to perfection. Bassist Erin Wright and baritone Jennifer Hall took charge on Monk's "I Mean You," while Stacy Rowles doubled on trumpet and vocal on "God Bless the Child," and King and Patterson shared blowing space on Buddy Childers' dynamic arrangement of "Killer Joe." The ballad "Longing for Eternity," featuring Kinnon's piano, was dedicated to the late pianist Linda Martinez. The band tried to end the set with Tom Kubis' sunny arrangement of "I Enjoy Being a Girl," but the audience wouldn't hear of it. As a well-earned encore, MV played Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," with solos by Kinnon, flutist Carol Chaikin and a second vocal by Rowles. In sum, a superb concert.

The music was deferred for the next hour by Poston's perceptive appraisal of the history of "The Birth of the Cool," using audio tapes and a video screen to underscore his incisive observations. Then it was back to the Ballroom to hear and enjoy the Chris Walden Big Band, led by one of Hollywood's busiest young composer / arrangers (who also plays a pretty fair trumpet). After raising the curtain with "Cherokee," featuring alto Jeff Driskill and trumpeter Ron King, Walden turned the spotlight on alto Kim Richmond for his arrangement of Disney's "When You Wish Upon a Star" and on pianist Alan Steinberg and trombonist McChesney on the up-tempo "Bailout." Of course, no one but trumpeter Wayne Bergeron could be the main man on Walden's "Wayne-ology," while tenor Rob Lockart was impressive on another of Walden's alluring charts, "Here's That Rainy Day." Walden brought along a vocalist, young Courtney Fortune, who sang passably on "Lost in a Memory," "Smile" and "People Will Say We're in Love." Walden unsheathed his trumpet on "In the Doghouse" and rang down the curtain with his "Film Noir, Part 3," showcasing trombonist Andrew Lippman.

There was time for one more concert before the dinner break, this one by the irrepressible Roger Neumann and his Rather Large Band. Neumann introduced another fine soloist in tenor George Harper who embellished the handsome opener, "All the Things You Are" and yet another rendition of "Cherokee." Also on the menu were Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train," a waltz ("¾ of the Time"), an original blues called "Takin' a Walk" and a Charlie Mariano chart, "Nothin' Wrong." Other discerning soloists included Neumann (tenor sax), alto / soprano Sal Lozano, trumpeters Rowles, Jack Coan, Jamie Hovorka and Ramon Flores, trombonists Scott Whitfield, Alan Kaplan and Alisha Ard (continuing her journey after sailing with Maiden Voyage), tubaist Jim Self, pianist Geoff Stradling and bassist Kirk Smith. Neumann brought a vocalist, Madeline Vergari (Mrs. N), who showed excellent range and power on "The Sunny Side of the Street" and "The Shadow of Your Smile." The RLB set the table for supper with an appetizing rendition of the Basie / Joe Williams classic "All Right, Okay, You Win."

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