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Los Angeles Jazz Institute Festival "Big Band Spectacular" 2017, Part 3-4

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

Saddleback Jazz Combo

The young Saddleback five piece jazz combo featured a tenor and baritone sax frontline, with a rhythm section of guitar, electric bass and and a fine young drummer. They presented a loose set of Real Book 1950s-60s Blue Note catalog, playing Miles Davis' "Nardis;" Wayne Shorter's "JuJu" and "Fee Fi Fo Fum;" Horace Silver's "Nica's Dream" and two standards, "Misty" and "Darn That Dream." Both saxophonists had good range of sounds, the baritonist having a good grasp of the Mulligan-Adams spectrum and phrasing, and the tenorist, a post-Lester Young/Stan Getz/Zoot Sims axis also with some nice phrasing. Both horns and the guitarist tended to play bursts of good ideas, but not yet telling a complete story. As a group they probably would benefit from some more rehearsal and greater polish, but they showed their nascent jazz chops, and it will be good to watch their improvisatory skills develop over the coming years.

Ron King Big Band

Ron King presided over his a tight band that tours to Asia and beyond and has a strong personnel with a forward-leaning repertoire with a healthy continuity with the legacy of modern jazz. They opened with Gigi Gryce's "Minority," taken at a fast bebop pace. Caeser Martinez kicked off with a strong, Pepperish baritone solo, followed by a fiery Ian Vo tenor solo, a virtuosic Ido Meshulam trombone solo, and Brian Schwartz' fiery trumpet. The sax section played a Supersax-like harmonized bebop solo, followed by spirited drum trades between Kevin Van Den Elzen and the ensemble's unison lines. A Ron King arrangement of Rodgers' "Where Or When" began with a pensive intro, evolving into a lovely re-harmonization of the melody, and some lively, ebullient flugelhorn soloing from the leader, and some magnificent piano soloing from Andy Langham, with exuberant, sparkling, crystalline right hand lines falling from his fingers. "Shine," a Ron King original, written for his son, was a Latin tune, with echoes of Woody Shaw compositional territory, and featured the leader's fluent flugelhorn solo, Dan Boissey's assertive hard-bop tenor and young Erik Hughes in a brilliant, fiery and fluid post-bop trombone solo. Some warm ensemble sections followed, building to powerful ensemble blasts, before a quiet and reflective flugelhorn reprise of the melody.

Next was another Ron King original, "A Long Way Home," a fast Latin tune inspired by the music of, and his associations with, Willie Bobo, Cal Tjader and Tito Puente. It featured the leader's confident upper register playing about the ensemble, leading to a fine tenor solo from Jimmy Emerzian backed by high register brass section work, and another exciting, swirling piano solo from Langham, and more strong ensemble passages and stratospheric trumpet. There was fine Latin drumming from Van Den Elzen throughout, and some fine dueling between Phil Feather's spirited clarinet and the leader's trumpet.

"Greetings From Earth" was a fast, swinging, modal blues, designed to be ready to explain jazz to an unexpected alien visitor. It is good that Ron King is prepared for such visitations, and it sets a fine example for us all. It opened with four choruses of brilliant piano from Langham. A simple riff melody of repeating notes was matched by a blaring trumpet section rejoinder. Solos from King and tenor saxophonist Ian Vo were followed by warm, mellow brass chordal passages and deft bass vamping from Max Krauss, gruff bass register trombone bursts sparring with plunger muted trumpets. This was followed by some beautiful unaccompanied reed section work (soprano, two flutes, clarinet and bass clarinet), launching a fiery Dan Boissey soprano saxophone solo. Trumpet section blasts led to quiet sax chords and a dextrous bass vamp, and a vigorous drum solo from Van Den Elzen, returning the band to the repeating riff head, and a blaring ensemble rejoinder with low register trombone unison riffs. A whirlwind tour of jazz for the now vertiginous aliens, and for the audience, this was a climactic ending to a tremendous set. A few bars of "Blue Monk" to sign off, and it was over.

Gary Urwin Jazz Orchestra with Special Guest: Bill Watrous

Trumpeter/Composer/Arranger Gary Urwin has led a fine big band for many years, predominantly playing his own arrangements. Several fine recordings, featuring the strong talent of its soloists, particularly trombone legend Bill Watrous, tenor titan Pete Christlieb and trumpet masters Bobby Shew and Carl Saunders. Building on the legacy of all the modern big bands, he writes imaginative compositions and finds new textures and sounds when revisiting the standard repertoire. While much of the content of this concert has been heard in his recordings, many new charts were heard.

Clifford Brown's beautiful bop perennial, "Joy Spring," continues to inspire musicians and listeners alike, with its happy phrases and cheerful chord progressions. It has always been a favorite of trumpeters, and in this arrangement there were friendly trumpet trades between Carl Saunders and Ron King, fine piano work from Christian Jacob and energetic sax soli passages. The standard "Beautiful Love," recorded on Kindred Spirits, was played up-tempo, and featured some mighty Doug Webb tenor sax on the melody, and upper register trombone from Bill Watrous. Fine solos from Saunders and Webb led to some vigorous tenor and trombone trading with drummer Jake Reed. "I guess I'll Hang Up My Tears To Dry" has been a feature for Bill Watrous' warm and thoughtful trombone ballad playing, supported by Urwin's nice brassy backgrounds, and later with sensitive woodwind textures with flutes and bass clarinet. Christian Jacob followed with a beautiful piano solo.

"Chucho," a minor Latin tune, was a feature for Billy Kerr's tenor sax and Kim Richmond's alto sax. Nice muted trumpet section work led into a sparkling Jacob piano solo, and some trading and fine interplay between bassist John Takiguchi and percussionist Brad Dutz. The piece ended with some lively brass section work with fine rhythmic accompaniment from bassist Takiguchi and drummer Ralph Razze. Polkadots and Moonbeams featured Carl Saunders, alternating on the melody with the reed section (flutes-plus-bass-clarinet), playing the last eight bars over descending, mellow brass voicings. This led into some nice double time ensemble work, before Carl returned to the final melody with his clarion upper register notes.

"Something The Cat Dragged In," an Urwin composition, was a fast samba with a happy unison trumpet melody. Ron King took a fiery upper register solo, followed by some unaccompanied interplay between the brass and reed sections. Drums entered, and accompanied a trumpet fanfare, heralding the full band, a lively Kim Richmond curved soprano sax solo and an energetic Ralph Razze drum solo. A Beautiful Friendship, title track of a recent Urwin album, featured Watrous and tenor-man Doug Webb on the main melody, with Saunders' trumpet on the bridge. Webb followed with a magisterial tenor solo, Watrous answered with some high register pyrotechnics, before a short ensemble chorus. A brilliant Jacob piano solo gave way to a chorus of Saunders trumpet fire, before the ensemble reprised the melody.

You Don't Know What Love Is was played by Watrous' swinging, smooth trombone in the upper register, with some unexpected oboe on the second eight from Phil Feather, before the trombonist took a marvelous solo chorus. A contrasting interlude of haunting, more lugubrious wind sounds and discordant muted brass harmonies, gave way to a fine but brief Christian Jacob piano solo. Stepping up to a crescendo were eight bars of saxophone section, eight from the whole ensemble, and a fortissimo ending, building up to the final trombone high note. Autumn Sojourn, featured also on "Friendship" and on Saunders' own "America," is a wonderful Saunders gem of a Latin tune, with a mellifluous, soaring trumpet solo from the composer, a muscular tenor solo from Billy Kerr and a joyful piano solo from Jacob.

It Could Happen To You, a bright and happy, medium-up swinging tempo arrangement, featured Doug Webb on a full solo chorus, and some fine bones-plus-bass section work weaving contrapuntally with the trumpets. Jacob took a fine, swinging piano solo, before some spirited trading between himself, Webb and drummer Razze. Thus ended a very agreeable, swinging big band session with imaginative arrangements of old and new material, and wonderful soloing by top shelf players.

Scott Whitfield Jazz Orchestra West

Whitfield has established a formidable reputation on both coasts and internationally as a brilliant trombonist and an inspired arranger/leader. He leads a fine West Coast band, which was featured here and augmented by his vocalist wife, Ginger Berglund .

"Teaneck," composed by the great cornetist Nat Adderley, with whom Whitfield had played early in hjs career and a major inspiration to him, was taken at a cracking tempo and featured the leader on two choruses of terrific trombone bebop, and fine solo choruses from alto man Billy Kerr and pianist Jeff Colella, followed by some punchy brass combat with Kendall Kay's drums. Lee Morgan's lovely bossa tune, "Ceora," in a refreshing 6/4 waltz re- configuration, started with a neat muted trumpet with trombone unison intro, and then warm, brassy voicings and a full ensemble chorus, launching a lively Whitfield trombone solo. He played two incredible choruses, with mighty soloing over his wide trombone range, playing marvelous lines in the upper register. The ensemble then propelled Steve Huffsteter into a lyrical flugelhorn solo for two superb choruses, a bouncy bass solo from Jennifer Leitham, and the brittle sounds of the harmon-muted trumpets over the flutes on the final melody. This was a particularly memorable piece.

The wonderful ballad, "The Bad And The Beautiful," was announced as a tribute to the great, veteran trombonist Dick Nash, who was in the audience, and featured each trombonist, in succession, playing the melody, with flutes-plus-baritone sax in the bridge. The double-time ensemble section that followed had many delightful, unexpected harmonic 'left turns.' "In Walked Horace" was a gospelly mid tempo offering over rhythm changes, and featured Jamie Hovorka on harmon-muted trumpet on two swinging solo choruses, underpinned by some delightful Thad-Jones-ish reed backgrounds on the second bridge. Rich Bullock played a cheeky, idiomatic bass trombone solo, and fellow section-mates Gary Tole and Fred Simmons answered with muted and open trombone solos of their own. "Magical Lands," a Whitfield composition, a fast samba with a bright, attractive melody and inspired by his time working in Orlando, featured some melody exchanges between Brian Clancy's flute, Whitfield's trombone and Hovorka's flugelhorn, as they negotiated the theme which alternated from minor to major, and back to minor. Fine solos followed from pianist Jeff Colella, Huffsteter's flugel (masked by mike problems), Clancy's flute and finally Whitfield's bone solo over ensemble with rhythm section vamps.

Johnny Mandel's much-loved "The Shadow Of Your Smile" was a feature for Ginger Berglund's vocals, with the verse taken at a rubato pace, and the main melody in a slow Latin tempo, with brisk, harmon-muted trumpet-plus-flute backgrounds. The leader took over with a double tempo trombone solo accompanied by a swinging rhythm section, climaxing with a very high note bone ending. Staying with Mandel and vocalist Berglund, I Won't Believe My Eyes was a medium samba, with cheerful melody and words, and featured fine half chorus solos from Huffsteter on flugelhorn and Billy Kerr on alto sax, and the gentle chug of Kendall Kay's gentle, understated samba rhythms. "Fragrant Hangovers," based on "Days Of Wine And Roses," began with an appropriately vertiginous bass intro from Leitham, and featured two piano solo choruses from Colella, the first at a relaxed swing, and the second settling into a strong groove. There were some spirited trades between the ensemble and Whitfield's clever scat vocals, leading to a full scat chorus with deft key changes and some fine Leitham bass soloing with vigorous double-stopping. The set finished with "The Gift Of Now," a fun, fast, swinging bebop line taken by the saxophone section interplaying with the trumpets, and featured solos from the leader's trombone, a relaxed but confident Jonathan Dane on trumpet, masterful Clancy bebop tenor saxophone, fleet-fingered alto sax work from Kerr, an energetic baritone sax solo from Roger Neumann, a series of trading choruses, then improvising all together, trading with drummer Kay and a powerful ensemble finale.

So ended a spirited, energetic performance by a tight, swinging band, with great solo depth, a marvellous repertoire, and the friendly leadership of a hard-working and brilliant trombonist.

The Phil Norman Tentet

The Phil Norman Tentet, now in its twenty-third year, and a classy mid-size band of top-shelf LA jazz musicians, gave a fine performance, showing its rather unique approach to preserving the great legacy of jazz music in fresh new ways. This performance was largely a showcase of music from their recent release, Then And Now. Tenor saxophonist Norman engages many of the best West Coast arrangers to re-create jazz standards in unexpected ways, frequently merging or metamorphosing original arrangements with their newer counterparts. Whereas many contemporary composer/arrangers might create a whole new modern take on an older tune, with the Tentet, a song would commonly begin with an authentic, verbatim transcription of its earlier recording, caringly re-created by the band, and then, abruptly or gradually, the transformation would begin, and the piece would re-emerge as its new incarnation. Each such piece would unfold in its own way. The personnel of the band is such that a great variety of sounds could be created to suit the range of pieces the band tackled, and mention should be made here of percussionist Brad Dutz and guitarist Yaron Levy, for the particular colours that they added to the six horns to enable so many possibilities. Among the eight or nine tunes presented were the following:

"Lullaby Of Birdland," arranged by Scott Whitfield, began with the beloved and much imitated classic Shearing Quintet sound of vibes and guitar, an octave apart, doubling the upper and lower voices of the piano block chords, similarly at the end. Spirited West-coast-ish ensemble passages followed with fine solos from alto saxophonist Brian Scanlon, pianist Christian Jacob, trombonist Whitfield, bassist Trey Henry, guitarist Levy and vibraphonist Dutz and more fine ensemble work, before the quintet melody returned.

A fine re-creation of Poinciana followed, in a Jacob arrangement, initially a verbatim reconstruction of a live Ahmad Jamal recording, with its timeless rhythms, ostinatos and countermelodies, albeit evolving in Jamal's own performances. The ensemble transformation, incorporating neat key changes, and harmonically daring renovations, gave way to fine solos by trumpeter Carl Saunders, alto saxophonist Scanlon, trumpet solo, a 3/4 time passage with a fine Levy guitar solo, before more imaginative ensemble writing, blending nicely with the return to the much-loved Jamal ostinatos.

"Line For Lyons," arranged by baritonist Roger Neumann, started with the Mulligan/Baker conception on the melody of the 'head,' before breaking into nice serpentine unison lines. A fine solo from Neumann was followed by a lively swinging Ron Stout flugelhorn solo, some nice trading between Dutz and Henry, before more teasing brass-with-wind counterpoint, ensemble work, and the final reprise of the melody.

"Take Five," another Jacob arrangement, featuring alto saxophonist Scanlon, began in a typically Brubeckian style, but transformed, up a semitone, into a harmonized re-reading of the tune, followed by some exciting ensemble work with super piano octaves and delightful metrical shifts. More key changes and cheerful solos from Scanlon, Whitfield and Stout. It was refreshing to hear solos over the whole form and not just the vamp. The final ensemble section was adventurous and cheeky, and had more brilliant Jacob concerto-ish piano octave work, before a more conventional return to the melody, but with more unexpected twists and turns, before a short vamp ending, à la Brubeck.

Cal Tjader's "Soul Sauce," arranged by trombonist Franciso Torres, was a fine re-working of this 1960s Latin jazz favorite, and featured a nicely paced Dutz vibraphone solo, a breathtaking Saunders trumpet solo (it was the audience taking the breaths, not Carl) against bright, happy ensemble backgrounds and countermelodies, with some nice rhythmic re-inventions.

Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy," a magic Jacob arrangement managed to take this golden Peanuts theme into new places, with terrific interludes and re-harmonizations, while staying completely grounded in the fun moods and childlike sounds of the original. Jacob's brilliant piano and a Neumann's muscular baritone were well featured. A later zany ensemble section with a brief (to this listener, a Benjamin Britten-ish) baroque passage, quietly petering out before some energetic contrapuntal ensemble work morphed it back into a brief, Guaraldi-like ending. So ended another fine grafting of the old with the new, and it was no surprise to be told that this had received a Grammy nomination.

Bill Watrous Big Band

Bill Watrous has rightly earned a formidable reputation as a virtuoso trombonist for over five decades, with a Himalayan range and fleet bebop chops, and as the years have passed, an increasingly pure, legato sound. All of this was confirmed again, and he is playing with remarkable dexterity at his 78 years, perhaps with a little less speed, but greater expressiveness. His trombone sound is a joy to hear.

Some years ago he recorded a fine album of Johnny Mandel compositions and two of these were featured. The band began with "Low Life," and this great West Coast swinger featured Bill's trombone and the brilliant, crystalline, double- octave piano solo work of Andy Langham. Later in the performance, Mandel's lovely waltz, "Emily," began with Ian Vo, flute, Phil Feather, oboe, and John Mitchell in exquisite three part voicings, moving into mellow brass passages. The tempo quickened and the sound crescendoed into the full band, Watrous taking a swinging trombone solo before settling back over descending woodwinds into the melody, which returned to the slow waltz, delicate oboe and arco-bass, a flute section cascade and the leader's bone landing a sweet and very high final note.

"Rhythm Samba" was a fast samba, propelled by Randy Drake's driving rhythms and Jennifer Leitham's electric bass, with complex bass-and-piano unison ostinatos, with tight ensemble passages and featuring hot, funky tenor solo work from Brian Scanlon. "It'll Count If It Goes" was an easy, bluesy swinger, swinging like Basie, and with a boppy reed section countermelody. Watrous played a smooth, swinging bone solo, and Ron Stout played a tremendous, angular trumpet solo, followed by some unaccompanied brass section passages, and a full band finale. The beautiful ballad, "Never Let Me Go," arranged by Gary Urwin, featured Watrous' warm vocal work (words like velvet and fog did spring to this listener's mind) and a thoughtful trombone solo. "The Road Goes Ever Onward} was a fast Latin tune with the tenor sax of Gene Burkert and the leader's trombone taking the melody together. Burkert took two fine solo choruses, followed by a fleet Watrous solo, bright and brassy ensemble chorus, a gradual drop in intensity, till finally both men improvising together over an extended vamp. An exciting Tom Kubis arrangement of Chick Corea's "Windows" began with a rhapsodic Andy Langham piano introduction, followed by a layered flute section entrance, handing the theme to the flugelhorns and ultimately to the trumpets high above the whole ensemble. Jeff Bunnell played a fine and very relaxed two-chorus flugelhorn solo, Jennifer Leitham soloed on bass with quiet brass punctuations, and the band, propelled by drummer Drake finished with a powerful brassy finale. This excellent concert's final offering was another Tom Kubis arrangement, "The Last Great Georgia Extravaganza" was a fast swinger, and began with a super Langham piano solo, an energetic brass section taking the melody, unaccompanied reeds followed by a series of terrific solos including a mighty trombone solo from Erik Hughes, a mellifluous flugelhorn solo from Ron Stout, a fast but smooth trombone solo from the Watrous, showing he still has great agility above the register. The arrangement jumped into a Dixieland feel, leading into a lively drum solo from Drake, some drum trading with the band, and before long, the final cadences.

Watrous' friendly, relaxed and unhurried stage manner and anecdotes were appreciated, although an unedited quip during the concert about the current political climate quickly established the bipartisanship of the audience, and some folk let it be known quite loudly. The uncomfortable disquiet in the audience was soon masked by the band's next musical item, which was fortunate. Just as well—that is what we travelled from distant lands to hear.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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