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Los Angeles Jazz Institute Festival "Big Band Spectacular" 2017, Part 2-4

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

Jimmy Giuffre's classic, "Four Brothers," has been a much-loved anthem of the Woody Herman band since his Second Herd, and a great jazz landmark. Traditionally a saxophone tour-de-force, this performance was a recasting for big band of Brent's earlier clarinet choir arrangement (recorded on A Family Affair) with all of its brilliant melody, great section work, and ensemble excitement. This time the audience was treated to eight-bar solos from every member of the band, section-by-section, beginning with each of the trumpets, followed by the saxophones and the rhythm section. Always a wonderful piece to hear, this was a fine display of the great depth of solo talent of this band.

The Fischer classic "Morning" featured trumpeter Jamie Hovorka and the vocals of Laura Dickinson, over a flute ensemble with muted trumpets. Quinn Johnson played a playful, nimble piano solo, followed by a muscular but lyrical trombone solo from Francisco Torres. A vigorous ensemble chorus and neat key change into the bridge was followed by some fine four-mallet countermelody work from the leader. Dickinson was then featured on a double-time samba reworking of "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm," somewhat inspired by a blend of Earth, Wind and Fire and Baden Powell, with complex bass rhythms and nice solo work from Brian Clancy.

"O Canto," a fast and happy samba, built around a repeating melodic motif, with continual shifting harmonies, was a feature for Carl Saunders' brilliant trumpet work, and exuberant brass section work, and six-mallet vibes wizardry from Brent Fischer. "In the Beginning," Grammy nominated in 2011, was next, with its mercurial bebop lines played by vibraphone and winds, insistent piano rhythms, and launching into twelve-bar blues form with double solo choruses from Sean Franz, tenor saxophone, and Scott Whitfield on plunger trombone, followed by angularly atonal bebop lines carried by the sax section and vibes over a pedal tone bass.

The delightful "Butterfly Samba," from the recent Intenso release, featured the vocal duet of Laura Dickinson and Scott Whitfield, skillfully negotiating the fast melodic lines and words (penned by Darlene Koldenhoven). It featured a stream of rapid-fire solos from half of the cast—flutes (Clancy, Budman), trombones (Whitfield, Jacques Voyemant), trumpets (Stout, Saunders), scat vocal (Whitfield) and drums (Ron Manoag), before the energetic reprise of the vocal duet melody. Clare Fischer's tune "Cal's On," a nod to vibraphonist/composer/bandleader/Latin jazz pioneer Cal Tjader, featured Brent Fischer on six-mallet vibraphone above harmonized brass, a fast and vigorous Tristano-like bebop melody line, a vigorous, boppy alto saxophone solo from Kirsten Edkins, and a muscular bone solo from Scott Whitfield. The band finished with "Sad About Nothing Blues," a feature for Saunders and Whitfield, singing the tongue-in-cheek vocal line, trading on trumpet and trombone, some whimsical scat vocal trades and more cheerful bebop alto work from Edkins.

All in all, this was a fine concert performance of great and complex Fischer material by a very dedicated band. The sound production was generally excellent, permitting all the nuances of this great music to be heard to advantage from the audience.

Bill Cunliffe and BACHanalia

Bill Cunliffe has had a distinguished career as a jazz pianist, composer, arranger, leader of small and large ensembles, and as an outstanding educator. He has strong roots in western classical music also, and these inform many of his explorations at the interfaces between jazz and classical music. He has an ear and instinct for finding the common ground between them, wherein he can combine classical thematic material and forms with the structure, instrumentation and improvisatory opportunities within the jazz big band. The challenge is to do this with the musical intelligence and integrity that fuses and brings out the best of both music forms. The performance by the BACHanalia band demonstrated this with style, great taste and swing as they played a mixture of classical-inspired works and other fare.

The band started with a mid-tempo, brassy, six-four piece, "Affluenza," featuring lyrical and energetic solos from Nathan Reed on soprano saxophone and John Papenbrook on flugelhorn, and understated brassy ensemble sections in a mellow, warm blend of four flugelhorns and four trombones. Monk's jazz classic ballad, Round Midnight, began with a fine, cadenza-like tenor sax opening from Rob Lockart, and featured a fine Cunliffe piano solo with rhythm section, before Lockart played a fine bridge, leading into the ensemble taking the melody out into another tenor sax cadenza. "The Three Cornered Hat," by Manuel de Falla, re-imagined by Cunliffe, commenced in 6/4 time, over a tasteful drum intro on toms by Jake Reed. Joey Sellers played an intriguing trombone solo using a foil-covered mute, followed by interplay between Papenbrook's trumpet and Cunliffe's piano. A samba section followed by 4/4 swing time rounded out this nice jazz excursion into a much- loved de Falla piece.

CPE Bach's "Solfeggietto," a well-worn piece familiar to most piano students began with a brushes intro, before breaking into the jazz-modified melody with vocalist Denise Donatelli singing the bebop scat line in unison with Cunliffe's piano, a line somewhat evocative of Parker's "Scrapple," followed by fine solos from Cunliffe's, Fred Simmons' trombone and Bob Summers' trumpet. This was followed by a bebop sax contrafact, in counterpoint with the trombones. Cunliffe then launched into a solo piano cadenza that began with the familiar CPE Bach melody, morphing into an increasingly modern incarnation before the final brass cadence.

JS Bach, without doubt the greatest of the seventy-seven composing Bachs, from the middle of seven Bach generations, innovative and prolific, and probably the prime Bach inspiration of Bill Cunliffe in conceiving his Bachanalia ensemble. Bill's marvelous re-working of JS Bach's Sleepers "Awake" (Ger: Wachet Auf = wake up!), one of his best-loved cantatas, was a treat. Beginning with a neat cadential piano intro, it launched quickly into a vocal-plus-sax unison rendering of the bebop-transformed melody, which was carried by sax-plus-muted Papenbrook trumpet and then with vocal-plus-muted trumpet. Fine solos followed—Cunliffe's piano, Zack Caplinger's mellow bebop guitar, and Francisco Torres' tasteful trombone. A reprise of the melody, similar to the opening, led to a hymn-like ending. All in all, this was a fine example of Bill Cunliffe's tasteful blending of classical and jazz.

JS Bach's "Goldberg Variations" have been much studied and played, and represent a titanic musical work, challenging to play in their original form and daunting to put into a jazz context, to be sure. Cunliffe explained his quirky inspiration for the name "Goldberg Contraption," and what followed was a montage of Goldberg-inspired themes, beginning with a cheerful contrapuntal trio of piano, guitar and flute, a piano solo in waltz time, with daring double octave passages over the ensemble, a later surprise, free-form section with Jeff Ellwood's multi-phonic tenor sounds, deliberately jarring, followed with a playful, unaccompanied Francisco Torres trombone solo, a rhapsodic piano interlude before the final, unexpected ending. It is possible that this might not be Cunliffe's last word on Goldberg.

Far from Bach, but no less inspiring, was the music of Thad Jones, and the band finished with a swinging "Big Dipper." This rollicking twelve bar blues, with a groove set up nicely by Jon Richards' bass and Reed's drums, featured wordless vocals from Donatelli, and inspired solos from alto saxophonist Steve Ragsdale, trombonist Simmons, and the irrepressible Bob Summers on trumpet.

Film Session: A Symposium in Swing

Ken Poston's continuing story of the evolution of the big band took the audience from the Fletcher Henderson origins directly into the mid 1930s and the beginning of the Swing Era, with fine film footage from Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and Woody Herman, five of the most influential and durable of the big bands. Discussion was had about particular star instrumentalists who left these bands to form successful bands of their own, such as Harry James and Gene Krupa. The final film was of the Ellington orchestra, perhaps the most distinctive band and the one least in the Henderson "mould." For all of Ellington's prolific composing, many of most enduring and memorable tunes emanated from this period in the swing era, through to the early 1940s, and the film footage showed "A" Train and a nice medley of "Sophisticated Lady," "It Don't Mean A Thing" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."

Fullerton College Jazz Band

The University of California Fullerton College Jazz Band, led by the fine saxophonist and enthusiastic director Bruce Babad, is a terrific university big band, with tight ensemble playing and many emerging fine soloists. They play a wide variety of big band arrangements, many of which are recent and quite adventurous. Mr Babad has a tremendous rapport with his band members, has an engaging and quite hilarious stage manner, but achieves a disciplined band sound, and this was a nice balance to see and hear in action. Their repertoire included standards such as "Here's That Rainy Day," and compositions by forward-leaning writers like Joey Sellers and Jerry Bergonzi (Committed), Matt Turner and John Harmon (Brown Boy). The ensemble work was swinging and tight, negotiating the complex arrangements skilfully, and there were some stand-out players, including the very lively drummer, Kayla Ivey, saxophonists Ben Sachs and Deandre. This band showed that, with good direction from an inspired leader and plenty of hard work, a university band can achieve a very high standard, develop fine solo abilities and have a lot of fun.

The Joey Sellers Jazz Aggregation

Joey Sellers is an adventurous trombonist/composer/arranger/leader/educator and has led this 11-piece band since 1980 when he was eighteen. He has continued to explore new sounds and concepts throughout its existence, has composed and recorded extensively on both coasts. He creates blends of the expected and the unexpected, the composed and the improvised, bringing an array of deep musical influences from inside and outside of jazz and classical music into his very individual creations. He has a strong band of players who master his complex charts, and bring their improvisational skills into the mix.

"Ximeno 735" was an original Sellers composition, and rather high in volume, which featured Kim Richmond's probing alto saxophone and energetic, muscular piano from virtuoso Kei Akagi. "Musings Of Children" brought an atonal soundscape, with a tone row melody, which was followed by a vigorous but thoughtful Trey Henry bass solo. Kim Richmond launched into a free-form alto solo against atonal ensemble backgrounds with meandering rhythm section beneath. Trumpeter Ron King played a powerful solo against a rhythm section vamp, then trombonist Alex Iles played his solo deep beneath some free form rhythm accompaniment. The band went finally into a rapid swing tempo a fast and frenetic soprano sax solo from Jerry Pinter .
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