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

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

Roger Neumann's Rather Large Band

Roger Neumann has led this happy band for many decades. One current member, trumpeter Jack Coan, was also a foundation member in 1975. They play a repertoire of standards and classic jazz tunes, using the leader's own fine and swinging arrangements, and a distinguishing characteristic of Neumann's band is that every player is given solo opportunities. His arrangement of "I Thought About You" began with Neumann taking the melody on tenor, with a nice brassy restatement of the melody, before taking a full-bodied, swinging solo. There were some quick 8-bar solos from pianist Geoff Stradling, bassist Kirk Smith and drummer Matt Witek, more Neumann tenor, and a final ensemble shout chorus.

"Undecided," by Charlie Shavers, was taken at a fast swing, and was a tour-de-force for the whole band, starting off as a feature for the tenor saxophones. There was some ferocious tenor soloing from Carol Chaikin, rip-roaring tenor from 89-year old Bob Efford, and more tenor from Neumann, before each of the five reeds took quick-fire eight-bar solos, leading to a three-tenor chase, some fine trumpet from Bob Summers and some fiery trumpet section work. Scott Whitfield played two energetic above-the-register bone choruses, as did Stradling on piano. The band dropped to half time for a sax soli, and the erstwhile Jack Coan played a nice solo with some fine plunger work. Then, back to the fast tempo for a piano chorus from Stradling, and a repeat of the sax soli at the fast tempo, followed by full-bodied ensemble and three-at-once tenor battling, and final trumpet pyrotechnics from Jamie Hovorka, by far the busiest man at festival. After the band and audience had drawn breath, there was a change of pace for "If You Could See Me Now," Tadd Dameron's beautiful bebop ballad, with Phil Feather's passionate alto sax taking the melody and later a fine solo, interspersed with the band, and improvising nicely to the end over a repeating vamp.

"Blues For Frank" is Neumann's clever incorporation of nine tunes associated with vintage Sinatra into one convoluted but fun blues tune, and featured a thoughtful bluesy solo from baritonist Jennifer Hall, fiery bebop alto from Brian Scanlon, contrasting easy-does-it piano from Stradling, a soulful virtuoso trombone solo from Ido Meshulam, nice walking bass solo from Smith. We heard brilliant, fiery, upper register trumpet soloing from the young Barbara Laronga, contrasting cool, relaxed trumpet from Hovorka, building up to staccato, double-time bursts. Bass trombonist Julianne Gralle played a fine tuba solo, trading with Kirk Smith's bass for several choruses, incorporating friendly exchanges, and Gralle's birthday greetings to the bassist, before a spirited ending by the band.

Madeline Vergari came to the stage to sings three songs with the band -a neat, rollicking "All Of Me," a delightfully re-harmonised "When I Fall In Love" with lush flute-plus-flugelhorn section harmonies, and a hard-swinging "OK, All Right, You Win." The band's finale was "The Flintstones Theme," taken at breakneck speed, with some fleet-fingered Stradling piano, a mighty saxophone section soli, blistering harmon-muted trumpet from Mark Lewis, a fast-and-furious trombone solo from Alan Kaplan, and a fearless alto solo from Brian Scanlon. The band engaged in nice ensemble trades with Matt Witek's drum breaks, and slowed to half time for a cheerful, swinging ending, with the band shouting, "Wilma!."

Film Session: Big Band Modern

The final film session on the big band story explored the big band beyond the bebop era, with a curious mix of film footage from more of the bands who were modernizing their repertoire in the 1950s and beyond—including the bands of Les Brown, Charlie Barnet (who, incidentally, voiced his reed section with soprano sax atop decades before others did), Harry James (who had engaged young modern arrangers like Neal Hefti, Bill Holman and Bob Florence), the Sauter-Finegan band (with some less-than- animated conversation from them both). There was discussion about the emergence of rehearsal bands such as those led by Shorty Rogers and Bill Holman, and the influence and continuation of such institutions long into the future. There was footage of the brilliant British reedman Tubby Hayes and some of Don Ellis' band playing the wonderful "In A Turkish Bath." It was a curious film session, considering that the story of the post war big bands, although well past their popular heyday, is a long and very much continuing story. Given the content of the three prior film sessions, one might have hoped to have seen some short footage of more of the influential bands from then until now—such as the 50s Basie and Ellington bands, Gil Evans with Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, '60s-'70s Woody Herman, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis, Akiyioshi- Tabackin, Clarke-Boland, Sun Ra, McConnell Boss Brass, Maria Schneider and others—might have shown more of the evolution. Filling an hour with the great post-war big band story can be approached in many ways, of course.

Carl Saunders Septet

There had originally been scheduled a performance, by The Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra, of the Gil Evans "Sketches of Spain." This was evidently cancelled, as the charts had not arrived in time. In place of this was a fine septet organized at short notice for the occasion, with a formidable combination of three fine trumpeters, one trombone and rhythm section. The audience was treated to some relaxed, loose-but-tight small group jazz of the kind that is rooted in the early hard-bop jazz of the mid-1950s, remains timeless but does not stand still.

"Walkin,'" strongly associated with the '50s Davis outfits, featured multiple blues choruses from the three trumpets—great bebop from Bob Summers, Hubbard-ish post-bop from Ron Stout, restrained upper register magic from Carl Saunders, super piano bop from Christian Jacob and some virtuoso bass from John Belzaguy. Towards the end there was some inspired, unaccompanied trumpet soloing from Summers, Stout and Saunders all playing simultaneously, and yet leaving space for one another. Summertime was played a la Miles/Gil Evans, with Ron Stout taking the Miles harmon-mute melody call and Summers and Saunders playing the ensemble response. Christian Jacob played a relaxed but adventurous, risk-taking piano solo, and along with his crisp comping, the rhythm section found a swinging groove. Saunders played a very high-register but restrained solo at a low volume with bumble-beeish lines, followed by a thoughtful Stout solo. What's New was a Clifford-ish interpretation of this fine ballad by Bob Summers' thoughtful and soulful trumpet, with an exquisite piano solo from Jacob, before a final, tongue-in-cheek Summers trumpet cadenza. The final offering was "Solar," attributed to Miles Davis, but evidently by the tragic but brilliant trumpeter Sonny Berman. Carl Saunders scatted the melody, Ron Stout and Bob Summers both took burning solos, before Saunders took an extended scat solo. After a burning bebop piano chorus from Jacob, the two trumpets and a scatting Carl played on and gradually faded over a repeating vamp. This small group treat thus came to an end. Three trumpets together can sometimes be a recipe for competitive grand-standing, but this instead was a friendly encounter between three fine trumpeters of contrasting styles, with great mutual regard and nothing to prove, who delivered an hour of great music.

The Bill Holman Band

The brilliant Bill Holman, recently turning 90, and with more than six decades of outstanding jazz composing, arranging, band-leading, is a true giant of jazz, and needed no introduction to the audience. His complex, busy, probing, polyphonic and swinging arrangements are many and varied, and greatly admired by his dedicated big band which he has rehearsed weekly for decades and which plays his demanding charts with virtuosity, polish and great swing.

The band opened with "No Joy In Mudville," led by the solo trombone of Erik Hughes, followed by the reed section playing the slow, bluesy theme against a medium tempo band. A lively baritone solo from Bob Efford was followed by the band trading with drummer Jake Reed, and later a happy, bebop bone solo from Hughes. The beautiful Tadd Dameron ballad, "If You Could See Me Now," was a feature for Ron Stout's trumpet, taking the melody over mellow brass, nicely re-harmonized by Holman, and then soloing over muted trombones. Going into double-time over a surging ensemble, Stout then returned to the melody and played a fine solo cadenza.

"Thick, The Air," was a medium-to-up-tempo swinger, with a cheeky soprano-sax-plus-trumpet melody over bright, brassy harmonies. A fine soprano sax solo from Bruce Babad moved into some explosive brass figures, leading to a swingingly assertive, post-bop trombone solo from Erik Hughes, a sax section melody over rising brass section figures. A nice saxophone soli passage gave way to jagged brass figures and a bold, staccato ending.

The major and much anticipated feature of the this concert was Holman's brilliant re-working of Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concerto de Aranjuez," Echoes of Aranjuez, which Holman had written and recorded a number of years earlier. In his hands, this much-loved 20th Century guitar concerto was re-birthed and transformed into an epic, many-layered work. Whereas Rodrigo's concerto was in three distinct movements, each built around a strong theme, Holman's arrangement positioned the various themes in new places, merging elements of the three original sections somewhat together, re-visiting motifs in unexpected places, and generating a splendid arrangement in four movements.

"Part I" opened in six-four time, set up by the rhythm section, and featuring Bob Efford's baritone saxophone (at 89, this longstanding band-member was just as vital as, but somewhat younger than, Holman) playing the opening theme in 6/4, followed by a swinging baritone solo in 4/4 time. There was much contrapuntal interplay in the reed section and ensemble surges that followed, as the band swung hard through Holman's brilliant arrangement. Bill Holman's genius in weaving great melodies—Rodrigo's and his own -in contrapuntal and polyphonic interplay, maintaining overall structural cohesion, and a strong sense of swing, was completely in evidence throughout, as he effectively re-crated a whole new jazz composition from the elements of the original concerto.

"Part II" opened with Bruce Babad's flute, teasing with motifs of the famous slow melody over some ambiguously harmonized clarinets. Ron Stout brought the melody to life further on flugelhorn, before handing it back to the flutes. There followed some sectional call-and-response from the band, and fine soprano sax work from Bruce Babad, and clever 4/4 band working over a 6/8 rhythm section work, before more band flirtations with the theme. Christian Jacob played a fine, rubato, solo piano interlude, leading to a fast swinging piano solo in tempo with the rhythm section, joined by swinging backgrounds from the band. Doug Webb played some strong, rubato, unaccompanied tenor sax, teasing with the third main theme of Concierto before also returning to tempo and into more ferocious tenor solo work, and some vigorous ensemble up-tempo playing, fine tenor trades with the drums and vigorous interplay between ensemble and drums.
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