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Los Angeles Jazz Institute Festival "Big Band Spectacular" 2017, Part 1-4

Simon Pilbrow By

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Los Angeles Jazz Institute Festival Big Band Spectacular
LAX Westin Hotel
Los Angeles, CA
May 24-28, 2017

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Organised by Ken Poston, head of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute (LAJI), and advertised as the "Largest Big Band Festival of all time!," this was a fine exposition of many of the best big bands from the greater Los Angeles area and a celebration of the rich traditions of the big band in jazz, past and present. Poston has organised twice yearly five-day festivals for over twenty years, generally with themes that re-create an earlier era and draw from the vast and rich archive of music held at the LAJI, and representing many decades of West Coast jazz activity. Recent themes have included a 100th birthday Sinatra retrospective, "Something Cool," re-creating the 1949-1959 cool jazz story; festivals celebrating the music of Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton, and others. Later this year will be a celebration of Gerry Mulligan's music.

On this occasion, Ken assembled some of the finest of contemporary West Coast big bands, most of which rehearse regularly, perform whenever they have opportunity, and some of which are fortunate to tour interstate and internationally, and document their music in recordings when it can be afforded. Most are run by gifted and accomplished composer/arrangers, which is often the only way to keep big band scale jazz viable in the current climate. These bands are populated by the large talent pool of fine Los Angeles musicians whose lives have been lived in various combinations of studio work, teaching and playing jazz at any opportunity, and who dedicate time to rehearse and play in one or more of these fine bands, because the music is intrinsically good, adventurous and challenging and because it keeps the art alive and evolving.

Some of these bands are committed to particular areas of earlier repertoire (e.g. Ellingtonia, as in the Mike Price Big Band), or maintaining the rich legacy of a particular West Coast musician (e.g. the Clare Fischer Big Band led by son Brent Fischer), or preserving and extending the broader modern jazz repertoire (e.g. the Luckman Jazz Orchestra); or re-creating or extending the music of the past in fresh or novel ways (e.g. Phil Norman Tentet, Gary Urwin Jazz Orchestra, Peter Myers Orchestra). Some have an interest in incorporating classical music into jazz big band repertoire (Bill Cunliffe Bachanalia). Other bands are quite forward looking, either extending the language while rooted in the deep traditions of the music (Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band) or breaking new territory in a freer jazz zone (Joey Sellers Aggregation), or incorporating an open-ended, diverse range of influences beyond jazz (John Daversa). Some are led by strong hornplayers who also have strong compositional or arranging skills (Bill Watrous, Carl Saunders, Scott Whitfield). Some have broken ground in other ways, such as the Ann Patterson's Maiden Voyage, which champions women's place in jazz, both in terms of showcasing its all-female line-up, and in playing often forgotten repertoire of some great ladies of jazz. Others are simply concerned with playing swinging jazz big band music with less conscious emphasis on innovation (Roger Neumann). Some have strong, individual identities of their arranger/leaders' arranging styles (Mike Barone, Bill Holman). As a consequence, there was a greatly varied line-up of fine big bands in the festival, all of which are committed to swinging big band jazz in all these many forms, to disciplined section playing of a very high standard, to giving solo opportunities to the many brilliant improvisers, and to provide rich playing opportunities to younger generation players who share the stage with the more seasoned players.

A large number of great musicians were involved, many in more than one band, and several were involved in multiple bands, Jamie Hovorka evidently topping the list with his appearances in about fourteen concerts and incredible stamina. It was great to see such a mix of ages on the stands, ranging from early '20s, through to late '80s, with the indefatigable baritone saxophonist Bob Efford probably.the eldest at 89. There were, as always, outstanding players on all instruments, but one particular observation at this festival was the depth of trombone talent featured—there seemed to be so many brilliant trombone solos throughout the festival from a great number of fine players, young and old.

There were many highlights, and to single them out is difficult, but opening the festival with the Goodwin Big Phat Band was an inspired choice, as was having the Bill Holman band perform the "Echoes of Aranuez" at the Sunday Brunch event. Ken Poston is again to be congratulated on putting together a fine festival, and rising again to the challenge of keeping something very good and worthwhile going, in the face of an ageing and diminishing audience. It was heartening to see many younger people attending particular concerts, but again raises the questions of how to keep alive this great music into the future generations.

Pasadena City College Studio Jazz Ensemble

Unfortunately, I was not present to hear the first two of these ensembles, but arrived in time to hear most of the final band. The Fullerton band presented an array of fine arrangements, with very good section playing from all, strong ensemble work and a strong rhythm section. The most memorable performances were a Bob Florence arrangement of "Afternoon Of The Prawn," and a brilliant Bob Brookmeyer arrangement of Ann Ronell's "Willow Weep for Me." Many fine soloists were heard, including trumpeter Michael Batista, reedman Nathan King and pianist Christine Arioka.

Gordon Goodwin's BIG Phat BAND

The Goodwin BPB has established itself as one of the most exciting big bands in jazz today, with extensive recordings and international touring. While it retains much of structure, concepts and swing of all the generations of great big bands and arrangers before it, it speaks new languages of rhythm and texture, its vital arrangements informed by the leader's great imagination, energy and daring, and the virtuosity and enthusiasm of its stellar players. They did not disappoint, delivering a wonderful opening concert, which was a fitting start to a fine big band festival, full of surprises and plenty of fun, atop the superb musicianship and tightness of this swinging band.

The band opened with "Why We Can't Have Nice Things" (featured on the recentLife In The Bubble album) and they were off to a fast pace with fine solo excursions from Brian Scanlon, tenor sax, and Andy Martin, trombone. Don't Blink was a terrific samba with nice, harmon-muted, trumpet work and a fiery alto sax solo from Kevin Garren. "Garaje Gato," dedicated to a cat (also from Bubble) was a delightful samba with fine flute work from Sal Lozano, and featuring some exciting percussion/drum dueling from Joey De Leon and Ray Brinker. "Rhapsody in Blue" (recorded on That's How We Roll) was a delightful re-think of Gershwin's much-loved classic of 1920s "Americana." It opened with Lozano's fine clarinet glissando, evolving into a swinging rendition of the opening theme in a neat AABA format. Many of the familiar melodies were woven together before a rip-roaring tenor saxophone solo from Jeff Driskill. The final, "love theme" was played by a very smooth trombone section, before the eventual concluding reprise of the main melody. Altogether this was a condensed but revitalized look at Rhapsody, with all the best themes clearly stated but quirkily re-imagined, and would have brought a smile to Gershwin's face.

"Lost In Thought" was a beautifully haunting melody, featuring piano and saxophone in unison lines, and creating a mysterious mood, into which came a fine flugelhorn solo from Willie Murillo and a nice tenor sax solo from the leader. This was a very thoughtful, nicely textured performance. "Sunset And Vine" opened with Trey Henry on bass and Andrew Synowiec, leading into exquisite, five-flute section work, and swinging solos from Andy Martin, trombone, Henry's bass and the leader on piano, and a nice reprise of the final theme by the saxophone section.

"Back Row Politics" was a feature for the trumpet section, a twenty-four bar blues with spirited gamesmanship between the four trumpeters, and plenty of upper-register chopsmanship. There followed some fine flute section work accompanied by the leader's zany piano. "The Buddy Complex" was a tribute to the legendary drummer/leader Buddy Rich, composed from fragments of tunes from the Rich band book, over a swinging 24-bar blues bedrock, and a fine vehicle for the powerhouse drumming of Ray Brinker, and many deft rhythm and tempo changes. We heard some spirited drum duels between Brinker and percussionist Joey De Leon, blistering solos from saxophonist Brian Scanlon and trumpeter Mike Rocha, and a highly energized, expansive drum solo from Brinker, who ought to have looked tired at the end, but instead looked like he could do it again.

All in all, this was a brilliant performance by a world-class band that loves to play the leader's brilliant charts, and does so with flawless section work, terrific rhythm section energy and great solo depth. Gordon Goodwin exuded energy throughout and an engaging stage presence, with friendly banter and quirky anecdotes. A hard act to follow!

Film Session: Drop Me Off in Harlem

Ken Poston took the audience on a tour of the origins of big band jazz, starting in the 1920s, with emphasis on the important role of Fletcher Henderson as a leader and arranger, along with Don Redman, showing film footage of Bessie Smith singing "St Louis Blues" with the Henderson band in 1929. Henderson's role in blending the sections of the band in "call-and-response" fashion, and how he combined the precision of arranged sections with space for solo improvisations was explored. This was contrasted with Duke Ellington's writing for the individual musicians, and how he crafted the arrangements and compositions around their individual voices, sounds and style. Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins were introduced as the first major solo voices in early big bands, and their influence on all jazz that followed—in establishing what we now know as swing, and in setting standards of improvisational freedom, imagination and technique that set the benchmark high. Early film footage was shown of the bands of many of the significant leaders, including Benny Carter, The Mills Blue Rhythm Band, Cab Calloway, Chick Webb, Lucky Millinder, Claude Hopkins, The Savoy Sultans and Jimmie Lunceford, and Ken discussed some of their individual contributions to the evolution of early big bands.

Mike Barone Big Band

Trombonist Mike Barone has worked hard for decades as a composer/arranger, leading his big band, and crafting his own unique soundscape with his own, adventurous and often quirky tunes, and drawing from the wider jazz and standard repertoire. He continues to produce new recordings, and a generous spread of his many arrangements was on display at this concert.

The band commenced with Chick Corea's "La Fiesta," title track of a recent Barone release, and in driving ¾ time, with clear saxophone unison lines powered by Bryan Taylor's driving drums, with solos from Sam Hirsh. "Indian Summer" showed characteristic Barone reworking of this standard, with rhythmic twists and turns, teasing the melody, stretching and compressing it, with fine solo choruses from Bob Summers' trumpet and swaggering alto sax from Tom Luer. Cedar Walton's "Jacob's Ladder" was a fast Latin modal tune, its ambiguous harmonies explored with punchy brass chords and strong saxophone unison lines. A sprightly Hirsh piano solo showed his right hand block chord chops, supported by marvelous bass work from Mike Alvidrez.

"Flight Of The Bumble Bee" demonstrated Barone;s imaginitiive re-arranging of Rimsk-Korsakov's familiar bee-line melody, with insistent rhythms, fast trumpet unison work, and flutes and soprano sax running with the melody. A later modal piano solo over mellow brass accompaniment brought a nice change of mood and pace. The movie theme from Brazil was another three-four vehicle for warm flugelhorn melody and a vigorous baritone sax solo from Tim McKay, and further, fine Sam Hirsh piano soloing over mellow brass backgrounds. "Song for Sally," based on Sweet Georgia Brown, was a tour-de-force for Hirsh's brightly swinging, four-chorus piano solo, two choruses apiece from Bob Summers, trumpet, and Michael Czaja, tenor sax, playing stop-time with the ensemble. This was followed by a mighty, unison brass, shout chorus, in call-and-response with the reed section.

"Girl Of My Dreams" was given a gentle bossanova treatment, followed by a nice unison bebop countermelody call-and-response between brass and reeds. There were impressive solos from trumpeter Mark Lewis, pianist Hirsh and soprano saxophonist Luer. "Birdland," the much-loved Weather Report anthem, featured a spirited ensemble rendering of Joe Zawinul's great melody, over a funky rhythmic accompaniment. A fiery Dan Kaneyuki tenor solo led to a mellow interlude with a Hirsh piano solo, and some clever key changes on the final melody. The band finished with s cheerful "Avalon," played up-tempo, with saxophones taking the melody against punchy brass work, exuberant ensemble choruses, and rip-roaring sax solos from Kaneyuki and Czaja. This led into a tenor chase for several choruses, a superb final ensemble shout chorus and a jubilant ending. Mike Barone has proven himself to be a tireless keeper of the big band flame, and at 80 years, his creative energies remain in full force and his band of enthusiastic and fine musicians did him proud.

John Stephens' BIG Bluzz Band

John Stevens fronted his swinging aggregation and played a variety of familiar and much-loved big band fare, but with new arrangements and fresh sounds to keep the traditions alive but evolving. The band presented a trio of Ellington songs, beginning with his beautiful ballad, "Warm Valley," which featured trombonist Phil Ranelin, in a very Ellingtonian arrangement, with heavy, dark ensemble voicings and textures. "Take The 'A' Train" was a swinging mid-tempo feature for vocalist Cheryl Conley, and she was featured again on "Mood Indigo," with fine muted-trombone harmonies and Dukeish piano right-hand splashes from pianist Serge Kamisoff. Witchcraft swung with all the character of the much-loved Nelson Riddle arrangement, but was a fresh re-working of the tune and featured a fine Jeff Kaye trumpet solo. Henry Mancini's "Dear Heart" was a contrasting ballad with fine piano work from Kamisoff, a nice bass solo from Richard Simon, and a fine tenor solo from Randall Willis. Earlier in the program, the band played a very fine and exciting arrangement of tune by Freddie Hubbard (name uncertain), which featured a brilliant trumpet solo from Ron Barrows.

"Viva Torado" was a fitting tribute to the late, legendary West Coast bandleader and inspiration Gerald Wilson, with its infectious Latin rhythms and fiery solos from Kaye and Willis. The band closed with the Count Basie staple, "Jumpin' at the Woodside," with a swinging bass solo from Richard Simon on the bridge, and spirited tenor sax solos from Willis and Derrick McLynn and some fine muted trombone work from Les Benedict.

Overall this was a solid performance of mostly great big band material, if not overly adventurous, but with inspired solos from many players and fine section work.

John Daversa Big Band

Led by trumpeter/leader John Daversa, this is a forward-looking band. The leader spoke at the panel discussion before his band played, about his desire for his music to draw from every sound he has heard, every musical influence being fair game. He sees this as an important approach for all honest musical creative endeavours, as each composer has had a unique listening experience that ought to, in an uninhibited way, inform all their creative activity. This was very much in evidence as the band's repertoire and sounds unfolded. There was plenty of drama and variety of texture in his arrangements. Nothing was predictable.

The band opened with Lennon and McCartney's "Michelle," featuring the leader's trumpet and a fanfare entry into a somber brass ensemble rendering of the melody. Alto saxophonist Phil O'Connor was then featured again, amid a huge ensemble sound, exploiting the stratospheric range of the trumpet section and later contrasting with slower ensemble passages. A second unnamed tune followed, featuring friendly trombone contrapuntal interplay between Paul Young and bass trombonist George Thatcher, and later the whole trombone section, leading into rock-infused ensemble work, with fine solo outings from guitarist Zane Carney, Thatcher and Daversa and muted trombone work from Young, who achieved terrific plunger-muted effects with his cup mute, and finally, nice clarinet solo work from O'Connor.

"Bury Your Soul," a powerful piece, and tour-de-force for leader Daversa, began at ballad tempo with an airy trumpet solo from the leader over gentle Neal Hefti-like ensemble chords, then a more intimate time with trumpet over the rhythm section trio, with the leader's angular phrasing alternating between breathy tones and more full-bodied trumpet. Some fine, a capella, staccato interplay between the saxophone and brass sections led to some full, bravura, brass section work, led by trumpet section leader Ron King, before returning to Daversa's breathy trumpet, again in the quiet and intimate setting of the rhythm section accompaniment.

The band's fourth and final offering was an epic piece, "Junk Wagon," which perhaps illustrated most completely the open-ended explorative approach of Daversa as a contemporary composer. It began jauntily, with flutes and bass saxophone, joined by long notes of muted trumpet. This morphed into a heavy rock beat, which switched to six-four, rock feel, with loud ensemble work, and then some soft woodwind sounds. This set up the leader for some solo excursions on his EVI (electronic valve instrument) and some more strident guitar work from Carney, an energetic bass solo from Jerry Watts, and all powered by the strong playing of drummer Gene Coye. This large-scale work was full of contrasts—loud and soft, sweet and sour, gentle and strong—but there were some odd, empty spaces in places that broke some of the musical journey of the piece. Nevertheless, it was a showcase for the leader's large musical vision, which incorporates an eclectic range of influences, and displaying, for all of those listening, the diversity that is Daversa.

The Clare Fischer Big Band

Clare Fischer's big band output from the early 1960s till his death in 2012 was enormous, varied and highly individual. It continues, as his son Brent Fischer unearths more unrecorded works and releases more albums of previously unheard material. Ably led by Brent, between conducting from the front and from the vibraphone, the band is populated by long-term and brilliant Clare Fischer alumni and newer, younger players who continue to bring the many decades of Fischer compositions to life.

Kicking off with "One," a fast swinging piece (originally recorded on Duality) with cheerful and punchy ensemble work, driving drumming from Ron Manoag, this featured fine solos from Brian Clancy, tenor sax, and Ron Stout, trumpet. The much loved Gaviota (Portuguese for Seagull) featured vocalist Laura Dickinson, and some sparkling Quinn Johnson piano over lovely flute backgrounds. An up-tempo swinger, "The Duke," featured vibraphone and vocal frontline, and led into a fleet-fingered, swaggering alto sax solo from Alex Budman, two choruses of Carl Saunders' fine trumpet, and overall, great ensemble dynamics.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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