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"A Swingin' Affair" Outshines Its Name

Jack Bowers By

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The event's fourth and last panel, "Remembering Bob Florence," was moderated by Kim Richmond who doubled as panelist with Efford, Don Shelton, Steve Huffsteter and Tom Peterson. Many stories were shared about Florence's uncommon talent, humility, warmth, humor and intellect. Little was said about that evening's concert but Richmond promised there would be at least one "surprise" at the end.

I was looking forward eagerly to the next concert, as it showcased a band led by the superb composer / arranger Tom Kubis. After opening with a clever version of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" (ripping solos by tenor Christlieb and trumpeters Bunnnell and Stan Martin), Kubis reached into his ample bag of tricks and dusted off a classic chart, "Samba Dees Godda Do It," meanwhile soloing on tenor sax alongside guitarist Mike Higgins and trombonist Andy Martin. Bass trombonist Rich Bullock and the sax section (awesome soli) sparkled on "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" before trumpeter Bergeron all but blew the audience away with some skyscraping salvos on another Kubis original, "High Clouds and a Good Chance of Wayne." Martin's rapid-fire trombone shared blowing honors with hard-working drummer Bernie Dressel on "Caravan," while Bird's "Anthropology" summoned alto Rusty Higgins, trombonist Kaplan, baritone Schroeder and pianist Jack Riedling to the center ring. After Higgins' guitar feature, the lyrical "Village Dance," almost everyone—especially the trombone section (Martin, Kaplan, Bullock, Bruce Otto)—stormed the castle on the finale, Kubis' torrid arrangement of "Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home."

Following that sonic onslaught a reprieve was certainly in order, and it came in the form of the last of the weekend's trio of films, "Big Bands on Television," with vintage clips of the Charlie Barnet Band with guest soloist Juan Tizol, a Miles Davis / Gil Evans version of "The Duke," Maynard Ferguson playing "'Round Midnight" with a Canadian studio band, two charming numbers by Germany's Kurt Edelhagen Orchestra, "Groove Merchant" by the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, and the Stan Kenton Orchestra performing "Artistry in Rhythm" on a TV special hosted by vocalist Mel Torme.

Two concerts were yet to come, the first—before the dinner break—by composer / arranger Ron Jones' Jazz Influence Orchestra. The ensemble opened with the tried-and-true "Yardbird Suite" (solos by trumpeter Luening and alto Selden), skated neatly through a Jones original, "Pockets of Time" (tenor Doug Webb, trumpeter Gary Grant) and featured Luening on a splendid arrangement of Kurt Weill's "My Ship." Vocalist Calabria Foti made a brief appearance, singing pleasantly on "Old Devil Moon." As an avid lyric-lover, however, I shudder whenever a singer isn't quite up to speed in that department, as in "I look at you and suddenly, something in my eyes I see..." Sorry; it's "something in your eyes I see..." Doesn't make much sense the other way. But back to the instrumentals. "Everything," dedicated to Thelonious Monk, showcased a fine pianist, Mike Lang, as did Holman's singular arrangement of "Donna Lee" (the latter also spotlighting trombonist McChesney and tenor Christlieb, a workhorse in several bands). Alto Gene Cipriano was impressive on his ballad feature, "My One and Only Love," before the band tied a shiny ribbon around the package with Jones' breezy "Happier Than Shit Blues," which imparted blowing space to more than half of the group's twenty-one members (besides the usual brass/ reeds / rhythm crew, Jones used two French horns, guitar, percussion and vibes).

There are times when the last concert in a lengthy panorama encompassing the span of several days can be anticlimactic. This was not one of those times. "A Swingin' Affair" sustained its climactic moments on an incredibly rhapsodic note with the Bob Florence Limited Edition coming together for the last time to render two-set tribute to its founder and guiding light, the incomparable composer / arranger / pianist who passed away on May 15, 2008, five days short of his seventy-sixth birthday. Florence wrote eight of the thirteen selections, several of which have become Jazz standards, and all of the charts. Set 1 opened with Florence's offbeat arrangement of "Take the 'A' Train," featuring baritone saxophonist Bob Efford and guitarist Steve Gregory, then moved on to three of his red-letter originals, "Bebop Charlie," "I'll Remember" and "Willowcrest" (solos on the first by tenor Jeff Driskill and trombonist Alex Iles, on the second by Driskill, the last by trombonist Whitfield and alto Richmond). Pianist Andy Langham introduced "Chelsea Bridge" whose melody was played by clarinetist Shelton with trombonist McChesney soloing. Florence penned the playful "Evelyn, Queen of the Racquet Club" for his wife, Evie, who was present with other members of the family. Resplendent solos courtesy of altos Shelton and Richmond. Set 1 closed with another of Florence's classic charts, "Carmelo's by the Freeway," which embodied scorching statements by tenor saxophonist Peterson and trumpeter Kye Palmer and, as was the case throughout, exemplary timekeeping by drummer Peter Erskine.

Between sets I turned to Betty, who was clearly fatigued, and asked, "Are you going to leave?" "I can't," she replied, speaking for almost everyone else in the audience. The Limited Edition soon returned to the stage, opening with another engaging Florence original that showcased Richmond's persuasive alto. It was the only song whose name I was unable to hear. Next up was the standard "Laura," on which Peterson and trumpeter Saunders (who played lead most of the evening) wrapped their crowd-pleasing solos in layers of warmth and sensitivity. Saunders soloed again with flugel Huffsteter on Johnny Mandel's "Emily," while a host of sidemen (including Erskine and trumpeter Stout) took their swings on Florence's clever homage to Stan Kenton, "Appearing in Cleveland." Then came the surprise: Florence's gossamer arrangement of the New Year's Eve perennial "Auld Lang Syne." The Scottish folk song had been recorded by the band more than two decades ago on the album State of the Art, and now, as then, the lone soloist was Florence's longtime friend and reed section anchor, Bob Efford, whose gem-like improvisation was, to these ears, the most earnest and self-effacing he'd ever produced. If there were any dry eyes in the house, rest assured there were none where this reviewer was seated. What a princely way to end the colorful four-day parade! For Ken Poston and the L.A. Jazz Institute, another five-star appraisal from from a hotel whose own star rating (personal opinion, and sorry to have to say it) hasn't always measured up to the entertainment.

Epilogue

Before "A Swingin' Affair" had even begun, the LAJI announced plans for its next extravaganza, "Artistry in Rhythm: A Stan Kenton Alumni Reunion," to be held October 8-11, again at the Sheraton LAX Four Points Hotel. The "bonus event" on October 7, limited to the first one hundred registrants and already sold out, is a concert at Capitol Records' Studio A in Hollywood where the Kenton Orchestra recorded a number of its classic albums. Kenton alumni slated to appear include Bill Holman, Marvin Stamm, Al Porcino, Don Menza, Mike Vax, Carl Saunders, Kim Parker, Bill Trujillo, Kim Richmond, Joel Kaye, Greg Smith, Steve Huffsteter, Dale DeVoe, Al Yankee and Roy Wiegand, with many more to come. See you in October!

And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin...'!




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