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Los Angeles Jazz Institute Festival - Woodchopper's Ball: Part 1-4

Simon Pilbrow By

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Los Angeles Jazz Institute Festival "Woodchoppers' Ball"
Four Points by Sheraton at LAX
Los Angeles, CA
May 23-27, 2018

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

The Los Angeles Jazz Institute (LAJI), under Ken Poston, has continued for some thirty years to keep alive and celebrate jazz and its rich legacy, largely, but not exclusively, focused on West Coast Jazz, curating a large archive of recorded music, scores, film, and general memorabilia and presenting live music performances. It also releases special rare recordings on CD. Twice each year the LAJI presents a first-class, four-and-a-half day festival, in late May and in late October, generally built around a theme or the work of a particular significant musician. Drawing upon their large archive of musical scores, and a large group of mainly Los Angeles-based jazz musicians, young and not-so-young, and special guests, the festival re-creates a feast of marvelous, historically important music, and draws visitors from across the USA, and from further afield -UK, Europe, Australia and beyond. In addition to the outstanding musical performances, Ken Poston incorporates fascinating and well-sourced, daily film sessions pertinent to the music being presented, and stimulating, daily panel discussions with the musicians. Many of those in the audience have attended these festivals for many years and have had repeated rich experiences of a wide range of music, and have connected regularly in person with a large array of the great jazz musicians past and present who continue to commit their talents and time to these excellent musical events. From a musical standpoint, these festivals create vital crossroads between the old and the new -timeless musical arrangements brought to life by a cross-generational mix of fine musicians who play the charts authentically and with great care, whilst bringing the freshness of their often more contemporary improvised solos. Old bottles, new wine, as they say.

Recently they presented a marvelous celebration of the music of the great bandleader Woody Herman. Over five decades beginning in the mid 1930s, Herman presided over an evolving big band that repeatedly reshaped the sound-scape of jazz, with an ever-expanding repertoire of music written by young up-and-coming composer/arrangers and brilliant lineups of young, innovative musicians who would fill its sections and aspire to its soloist ranks. Woody was an incredible leader and talent scout, and many jazz musician's careers were given healthy exposure and a kick-start from their tenures with Woody. This festival featured many distinguished Herman alumni—among them vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, at 93, probably the only 2nd Herd alumnus still alive, in an enthralling panel/interview; trumpeters Bobby Shew, Mark Lewis and Ron Stout; trombonist John Fedchock, tenor saxophonists Frank Tiberi, Larry McKenna, Roger Neumann, Gary Anderson, Jerry Pinter , baritonist Mike Brignola; pianist Alan Broadbent, drummers Jeff Hamilton and Jim Rupp. Whilst these alumni were prominent in the many ensembles, many other outstanding players were featured in each of the bands and contributed outstanding solos. There was opportunity to hear many fine clarinetists wearing the Woody clarinet 'mantle' in various concerts—Ken Peplowski, Alex Budman, Kim Richmond, Frank Tiberi and others. Other outstanding soloists who were well featured included trombonists Scott Whitfield and Dan Barrett paying tribute to Carl Fontana and Bill Harris, respectively, tenor saxophonists Don Menza and Harry Allen, in tributes to Stan Getz and Flip Phillips. Featured in most performances was the drum set belonging to the late Herman alumnus, drummer Ed Shaughnessy.

Organized chronologically, the concerts, film presentations and panels each began with Woody's earliest music and worked their way through the five decades sequentially, as the Woody Herman musical story unfolded over the four-and-a-half days. Within the scope of the festival and rehearsal time, and in view of Herman's massive recorded output, the music presented was carefully chosen, representative and comprehensive, all the key Herman music being included. There was a good mix of big band and smaller group concerts. There were no major omissions -larger scale works such as Broadbent's "Blues In The Night" and the Children of Lima orchestral scores were clearly beyond the scope of this festival.

Ken Poston, assisted by Eric Fankhauser, Lori Poston, Kate Demerjian and the other volunteers who make this happen, are again to be congratulated for organizing yet another fine festival. The LAJI evidently runs on a small budget, and with gradual diminution in numbers of attendees compared to when these events began in the early 1990s, it is presumably an ever-growing challenge to maintain these festivals into the future. It is to be hoped that these excellent festivals can remain viable long into the future, and attract new generations who appreciate the richness of this large and exciting musical legacy. The next LAJI festival is "Something Cool—Celebrating the Great Vocalists of The West Coast Jazz Era," 25-28 October, 2018.

Carnegie Hall 1946 -Directed by Michael Berkowitz, with Special Guest Ken Peplowski

The re- creation of this historic concert of the Woody Herman First Herd, featured Ken Peplowski on clarinet in the Herman role. The performance opened with Ralph Burns' much loved "Bijou," showcasing some soulful Dan Barrett trombone echoing the great Bill Harris, and Barry Zweig's tasteful guitar evoking Billy Bauer. "Sweet And Lovely," province of the late Flip Phillips, featured Ken Peplowski's evocative tenor sax melody in marvelous Flip-like arpeggiation and speech rhythms, and after neat piano obbligatos from Alan Steinberger, a magnificent tenor cadenza. Next on the menu was "Blowin' Up A Storm," beginning with swinging Steinberger piano choruses, swooping Peplowski clarinet, vigorous tenor from Keith Bishop, brassy trombone and trumpet solos from Dan Barrett and Ron Stout and the ebullient ensemble ending of this Herman staple with Dick Weller's powerful drums. "The Good Earth" remains a winner, with its cheerful bebop melody and clarinet bridge, bold crescendo ensemble parts and happy sax section soli passages, final exhilarating ensemble interplay and whistle-like, three- note clarinet coda.

The "Ebony Concerto," written by composer Igor Stravinsky for the First Herd, was an ambitious piece in its day, and a challenge for the original Herd at the time. Its artistic worth has been debated ever since, but it was an early example of collaboration between the jazz and classical worlds, broadly part of what would later be considered third stream. It was certainly a departure from the Herd's usual fare, and makes up for its lack of swing with interesting textures, rhythms and quirky melodies that the audience don't necessarily whistle as they leave. It is a complex piece, a labour of love that demands a large slab of rehearsal time, which could be underestimated. This was such an occasion, and although mostly it was well executed, it came off the rails during the third movement. For those who love the piece, all its character was there, the playful clarinet lines, the staccato sectional interplay, the sharp dissonances, the sometimes lugubrious reed sounds, eerily muted trumpets, smeary trombone blasts and intermittent moments of swing and bluesy melodic touches.

The band was in full swing again for "Your Father's Moustache," with its cheerful brass section intro and sweeping clarinet from Peplowski. Solo features included a confident trumpet solo from Mark Lewis, muscular trombone from Paul Young, big toned tenor from Keith Bishop, and playful, bright piano work from Steinberger, the band vocal in conversation with Lewis' trumpet and a fine Peplowski clarinet cadenza. The much-loved, haunting Ralph Burns arrangement of "Everywhere" featured Dan Barrett's trombone playing Bill Harris' beautiful melody, and wonderful band dynamics, from the gentle beginning with the descending reeds to the later roaring crescendo. "Goosey Gander" was another tour-de-force for Harry Allen's tenor sax and Dan Barrett's bone, the terrific section work from screaming trumpets, vigorous trombones, nice unison reed section work and trumpet section glissandos.

Ralph Burns' fine "Summer Sequence" followed, in its original three movements (Burns later added his fourth movement for the Second Herd, to feature Stan Getz). The first movement which Burns originally described as "slow and peaceful" featured Barry Zweig's haunting guitar melody, Steinberger's piano solo conversations with the band, Barrett's soulful trombone, and Doug Weller's crisp brushwork. The second movement, dubbed "fast and furious" by Burns, opened with a fiery brass intro and agitated piano chords, leading into John Mitchell's big-toned baritone sax, some urgent ensemble work, chirpy clarinet, quirky piano and the customary, fiery ending. The final movement, "just happy," began with its dissonant piano, vigorous Dave Stone bass, Keith Bishop taking the tenor melody, and Rusty Higgins with the soaring alto melody, and swinging ensemble work.

"Wild Root" began with its happy, unison bebop reed section melody, with excellent solo work from Harry Allen's tenor, John Mitchell's baritone, Paul Young's trombone and a soaring clarinet solo from nearly-90-year-old Gene Cipriano with the fiery unison brass section unison parts, energetic Weller drum solo before the stratospheric trumpet section conclusion. The concert concluded with Flip Phillips' "With Someone New," with Harry Allen featured on tenor for Flip's sensuous ballad melody, accompanied by Zweig's guitar and light brass figures, and proceeding to an evocative, rhapsodic tenor solo and a fine, breathy cadenza.

Film Session 1. The Band That Plays the Blues -Rare Films from the Los Angeles Jazz Institute Archive

Ken Poston continued his tradition of well-crafted presentations of historic film footage to tell the Woody Herman story. He described Woody's beginnings with the Isham Jones band, its "sweet" and "jazz" factions, Jones' retirement in 1936 and Woody's reforming of 'The Band That Plays The Blues.' Footage of many tracks with early Woody Herman clarinet was shown, with its trademark grace notes and his smooth, crooning and bluesy vocals, the fine drumming of Frankie Carlson, and a mix of the sweet and the swinging, some tracks sounding quite modern with pre-bop unison reed section melodies. Poston spoke of the significance of the Herman band playing the Paramount and its hit with Woodchopper's Ball in 1939, its first motion picture appearances in What's Cookin' in 1942, co-featured with the Andrews Sisters, and the emergence of the band's theme "Blue Flame." Their appearance in the 1943 film Wintertime showed the band in fur coats, in the back of a sleigh, and one could hear the evolving Ellington influence in the arrangements, and of Woody's Johnny Hodges-inspired alto saxophone playing. Featured were lady trumpeter Billie Rogers, and other major band members Cappy Lewis, Vido Musso and Jimmy Rowles. Clever black-and-white cinematography of the Woody's singing "We're Going To Be Dancing In The Dark" and the band playing in the dark, with marvelous lighting effects, fine examples of Woody's fleet clarinet, Vido Musso's tenor and Dave Tough's drums.
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