"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.


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.



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