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

Simon Pilbrow By

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"Miss Roger's Boots" began with a quirky, boppy melody played by piccolo, saxophones and muted trumpets. A zany ensemble bebop line followed over insistent, on-the-beat bass notes, with deft brushwork from Kendall Kay. Young trombonist Ido Meshulam played an ebullient, powerful solo with saxophone backgrounds, ultimately settling into a "rhythm-changes"—like chord progression with unexpected left-turns, with fast bebop phrases trading with the saxophone section, and then unaccompanied playing against more quirky ensemble backgrounds. Kim Richmond followed with an up- tempo alto sax solo, ultimately accompanied by the full band, with about four superb, fiery bebop choruses, followed by exchanges with the band, in and out of tempo. The opening melody returned with piccolo, soprano saxophone and muted trumpet and fine interplay with Kay's energetic brushwork.

"E.E." began with a gentle chorale with a trio of flute, muted trumpet and clarinet, in an almost "Mood Indigo" like effect, leading into an up-tempo 3/4 piano vamp, which introduced a bright flugelhorn solo from Ron King supported by brassy ensemble work, followed by a muscular Jerry Pinter tenor solo, and Ron King returning with a vigorous trumpet solo with more aggressive rhythm section work, returning to the woodwind chorale and piano vamp, and exiting with King's trumpet and a final chorale.

"Sueño" (Spanish for dream), with its melody based on—no surprises, here—"You Stepped Out Of A Dream," featured Sellers on trombone, and showed dynamic interplay more like that of a small group. It featured a unison sax, bass and bone melody over teasing backgrounds in and out of tempo, which eventually settled into a fast swing and a sparkling piano solo from Akagi and two choruses of swashbuckling, sizzling drums from Kendall Kay. Jerry Pinter followed with a ferocious tenor sax solo with ensemble comment, but mostly unaccompanied. This evolved into two in-tempo fast choruses atop a powerful rhythm section, leading into a gentler, more subdued background passage, a rise and fall in volume till it eventually petered out to a whisper. The closing tune, "Gravy Crisis," was a fun tune with a zany bebop melody played by Sellers' trombone with the ensemble, a nice vamping bridge, and fine solo work from Ron King, Sellers and Henry.

This was a challenging session for many in the audience, as it was much more avant-garde than most of the big bands represented, and generated interesting dialogue between festival patrons and Sellers at the panel discussions which followed, These discussions raised perennial questions about the future survival of jazz, the balance between preserving the legacy versus forging ahead, what ought to be the wisest musical blend for a festival such as this one, and what ought to be the content of jazz courses in university, perhaps fearing that students might not be learning the rudiments of jazz pedagogy. Sellers was quick to defend the course he presides over at Saddleback college as teaching a largely conventional jazz curriculum.

The David Angel Big Band

This band, led by veteran tenor man Angel, is a variation on the conventional big band lineup, a smaller group with a full reed section, a single trombone, a French horn and a tuba, and only two trumpets, giving it a mellow, woolly, sound- scape similar to the Gil Evans-Miles Davis recordings with nonets and larger bands in the 'fifties.

"This Time The Dream's On Me" was a friendly rendition with fine solos from Scott Whitfield on trombone, Roger Neumann on tenor sax, Jonathan Dane on trumpet, with some vigorous trading from each. Bud Powell's "Hallucination" was taken at an unexpected medium tempo, with fine double choruses of solos from Ron Stout on trumpet and Tom Peterson on tenor sax. "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing," the beautiful and haunting Strayhorn ballad, originally from Ellington's "Such Sweet Thunder," featured Stephanie O'Keefe's French horn on the melody, shared with Dane's muted trumpet, some gentle ensemble passages, nice harmonized flute work and a thoughtful solo from guitarist John Chiodini over bass and drums. David Angel's own "Love Letter To Pythagorus," a reference to the great mathematician's musical discoveries in relation to the harmonic series, was a gentle ballad featuring the reed section playing flutes, clarinet and bass clarinet, and fine solos from a soulful Neumann and a mellow Whitfield. After a brassy interlude, there followed a 3/4 section, with fine solos by a Phil Feather, alto sax and Ron Stout, flugelhorn. In all, it was a fine composition with wonderful ensemble sounds.

"Out On The Coast" was a mid-tempo piece which opened with an unusual, unaccompanied three-part saxophone sound (alto and tenor sax parts doubled), leading into an easy-going fifties West Coast sounding tune, featuring a fine Chiodini guitar solo, and mellow brass ensembles interplaying with Paul Kreibich's fine drum work. Vernon Duke's wonderful Autumn In New York was given fine ballad treatment, beginning with an a capella ensemble section. The melody was then shared, in turn, between Stout's flugelhorn, O'Keefe's French horn, Neumann's tenor, Jim Self's tuba, Jon Dane's trumpet, Bob Carr's baritone sax. Stout took the melody again and then played a beautiful ballad flugelhorn solo, followed by a spirited solo from alto saxophonist Feather, and the final melody again shared between Stout, O'Keefe and Feather. The band finished their set with Mandel's "Hershey Bar," a '50s West Coast classic tune, with some nice Latin drum work from Kendall Kay, and featured a fine flugelhorn double chorus from Jonathan Dane, a nice Lester-ish tenor solo from David Angel, and two spirited tuba choruses from Jim Self.

Overall this was a most enjoyable performance by a thoughtful band with a nice blend of swing, mellow brassy sounds and fine soloists, operating in a lower temperature range than many bands, but finding a beautiful range of mood and texture.

Mike Price Big Band

Trumpeter Mike Price leads a strong band that dedicates itself substantially to the vast Ellington repertoire, and served up a nice program of music largely derived from the seminal 1950's and 1960's Ellington Suites recordings "Such Sweet Thunder," "Suite Thursday" and "Far East Suite."

"Such Sweet Thunder," title tune from Ellington's Shakespearean suite, opened the concert and featured strong solos from the leader's trumpet and Duane Benjamin's trombone. "Amad," from the Far East Suite was a medium swinger, with driving bass and drum work, and featured bassist Richard Simon in an energetic bass solo, and Les Benedict playing a trombone solo that explored eastern scalar sounds. Lady Mac began with a fine ragtime waltz piano introduction from Brian O'Rourke, and again featured the leader's trumpet, evoking a Clark Terry-like sound, so characteristic of the fifties Ellington sound. "Schwifi," from >Suite Thursday, Ellington's foray into Steinbeck country, began with a very Ellington-inspired piano introduction from O'Rourke, leading into a rapid swing tempo, with unison sax and trumpet blasts. Fine solos followed from O'Rourke again, Bob Summers, trumpet, a blistering solo from tenor saxophonist Rickey Woodard, and a fiery ensemble ending climaxing with Mel Lee's exciting drum work. Sonnet For Caesar began mysteriously with fine clarinet work from Geoff Nudell, wearing the Jimmy Hamilton mantle.

"New Orleans Rally," a Price original, began with a march rhythm, insistent tom drum beat, and Ellingtonian clarinet writing over the sax section, settling into a jaunty medium swing tempo. Next followed a soulful Duane Benjamin trombone solo and an energetic clarinet solo from Nudell, leading finally into an exuberant, Satchmo-like, Mike Price trumpet solo. The leader introduced a famous Japanese folk song (name not accurately recorded), which had a "Maiden Voyage" like vamp introduction, and a haunting clarinet melody. A vigorous clarinet solo from Nudell, played in fast swing tempo, was nicely cushioned by cool saxophone backgrounds.

Telecaster, another Ellington theme from Such Sweet Thunder, featured Pablo Calogero on baritone sax, in a moving, Harry-Carney-like rendering of the ballad melody. Madness in Great Ones was a medium-up swinger with a bebop melody, and featured a very swinging rhythm section and bombastic, raucous trumpet section work in the upper range, and some extreme Cat-Anderson-inspired trumpet on top from Walt Johnson. The beautiful ballad Isfahan, from the Far East Suite, was as expected a solo feature for the alto sax, and Lee Secard  evoked a Johnny Hodges sound as he played the sumptuous melody, a definite high point of this concert.

Not to be outdone, the concert finished with "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," which was first played at the legendary 1956 Newport Festival, and at which Paul Gonsalves' twenty-seven choruses set standards for excesses in jazz that have, alas, often been exceeded since. Fortunately, the present performance had none of these excesses, featuring a two-chorus, very spirited piano solo from O'Rourke, about five choruses of top tenor playing from Woodard, more choruses with unexpected key changes and piano eccentricities from O'Rourke, and workouts for all sections of brass and reeds, and near the end, a strong trumpet solo from Price.

Given that, of Ellington's thousands of compositions, probably less than a hundred of his tunes are played regularly, and probably "done to death," it was refreshing to enjoy this unconventional Ellington feast, and was a tribute to Mike Price's determination to keep alive some of the less often heard but challenging music from a great twentieth century master.

Steve Huffsteter Big Band

Trumpeter/composer/arranger/leader Steve Huffsteter has been a mainstay of the West Coast jazz scene for nearly six decades, and in the trumpet sections of the big bands of Stan Kenton, Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin, Bob Florence, Mike Barone, and many, many others. He has led his own big band of top shelf players for many years now, and has built up a large repertoire of original compositions and arrangements. In this performance they played largely original material, which he indicated was mostly recent output.

Opening with a delightful, fast and swinging 3/4 tune, "B.B.B.S.," the band hit the ground running with a fine and fluid solo from the leader on trumpet, and a very swinging trombone solo form the young Ido Meshulam. The band launched into "It Had To Be Duke," a clever Huffsteter original based on the It Had to Be You motifs, draped over the chord structure of Ellington's "In A Mellow Tone." Keith Bishop led off with an authoritative baritone sax solo, followed by energetic solos from trombonist Les Benedict and trumpeter Mark Lewis. An unnamed ballad followed with nice piano intro and fills from Stuart Elster, and was a feature for the fine tenor playing by Jerry Pinter, who played the melody and solo, along with the warm brass backgrounds much favoured by Huffsteter, and a final tenor sax cadenza.
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