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Los Angeles Jazz Institute Festival - Woodchopper's Ball: Part 3-4

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

Concert 8: The Herdsmen -Bobby Shew meets Larry McKenna

Trumpeter Bobby Shew is a well- known alumnus of the mid-1960s Woody Herman Herd, and has had a high profile career in jazz as a trumpeter and educator. Tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna, an alumnus of the band from 1959, has had a distinguished career based around his home-town of Philadelphia, where he has long been a much revered player and educator, but he deserves a much higher profile. Although these men had long had a mutual regard for each other's playing, they had not previously played together. Thus, this was a very happy meeting of two exceptional musicians, fronting a quintet with a rhythm section team of Rich Eames, Chris Conner and Paul Kreibich, and playing a delightful concert of timeless, post-bop, small group jazz with a congenial frontline of unison lines and harmonies, sympathetic accompaniment and effortless swing. As soloists, both Shew and McKenna are consistently inventive and lyrical players with highly-developed melodic sensibilities, with which they construct first-class improvised solos. It was an inspired choice of the organizers to pair them on stage for this festival, and much anticipated by those familiar with both men's work. They certainly delivered!

An unnamed first tune with an easy-going melody opened the concert. McKenna led off with characteristically confident but laid-back, fluent tenor lines, and Shew responded in equal measure, with cheerful, flowing bebop lines. Eames played an upbeat piano solo, and Conner produced elegant, clear bass lines, gradually building in intensity, and the two horns traded in conversation with Kreibich's drums for several choruses. Next was Sergio Mendes' "So Many Stars," a medium-tempo Latin tune with a somewhat yearning quality, McKenna taking the melody, accompanied by Shew's lovely trumpet harmonies beneath. The tenor veteran again showed his ability to build beautiful melodies and tell a story, and Shew then played a mellow solo, beginning gently, weaving attractive melodic lines and gradually gaining momentum. Eames piano solo made good use of mid register sonorities and upper register lines, continuing the gentle mood, and Conner played thoughtful, rhythmically Latin-tinged phrases, with superb upper register fluency. "One Morning In May," Hoagy Carmichael's lovely waltz tune, was taken at a faster- than-usual tempo, with clever two-horn interplay on the melody. McKenna's evergreen tenor lines again shone for two marvelous solo choruses, Conner played two athletic bass solo choruses with super intonation, playfully exploring his melodic ideas. Bobby Shew followed with an initially mellifluous trumpet entry, building into fiery bebop, and as his intensity rose, the rhythm section seemed to swing all the harder.

"How About You" by Burton Lane was back at an easy-going tempo, and again showcased McKenna's brilliant solo architecture, well-paced, with flowing melodic lines. Shew followed with beautiful, clean lines, relaxed but exciting. Eames' right hand piano lines danced. Drummer Paul Kreibich took a solo chorus, rhythmically imaginative and probing. They slowed to a ballad tempo for McKenna to take the melody on Rodgers and Hart's "It Might As Well Be Spring," with subtle rhythm section interplay, particularly Rich Eames' sensitive piano accompaniment. McKenna again constructed his exquisite melodic phrases, finding all the right notes in a superb ballad interpretation of this attractive song. Eames played an agreeable piano half-chorus, before Shew reappeared gently playing on the bridge, before the tenor man closed the tune, with Shew's elegant harmonies beneath. The finale was a McKenna original, "You Know It's Me," a hard-bop swinger with unison horn melody. Larry then unleashed a harder-hitting, bigger tenor sound for two choruses, Shew played two feisty, confident, bluesy choruses; Eames seemed to take more risks rhythmically, and reach a higher plane with his playful lines, and Conner gave another bold but easy-going bass solo. Kreibich again took a whole drum solo chorus, before this memorable McKenna tune came back for the final time.

In no way does it detract from Bobby Shew's brilliance or accomplishments to say that McKenna's playing was a revelation, not just to those previously unfamiliar with his playing but for all in the audience. He is a major tenor saxophonist capable of remarkably consistent and inspired melodic invention, and definitely a talent deserving of far wider recognition. It was no surprise that, at the CD stand afterward, McKenna's CDs sold like hot cakes. This man plays wonderful jazz, and at 81, seems to have a great deal of music still to play. One can only hope that many more will discover him.

Panel 2: Woody's Winners -Moderated by Larry Hathaway

Larry Hathaway facilitated a fascinating and insightful panel discussion with five Herman alumni. Trumpeter Bobby Shew described joining Woody in 1965, with the good fortune to be on the much-acclaimed recordings My Kind Of Broadway and Woody's Winners, and staying on band for ten months.

Tenor man Larry McKenna joined the band in 1959, and mentioned the high-calibre trumpet section lineup at that time, including Bill Chase, Paul Fontaine and Don Rader, as well as being alongside lead tenor man Don Lanphere. McKenna evidently stayed only six months on the road with Woody, returning to Philadelphia, where he has remained since, as a player and educator.

Gary Anderson, tenor saxophonist and important Herman arranger in 1973, joined Woody in the early seventies, having waited for an opening on baritone sax (his main instrument), but instead filled a tenor vacancy, remaining in this chair throughout. He mentioned that key players at that time included pianist Andy LaVerne, tenor men Gregory Herbert and Frank Tiberi. He mentioned that Alan Broadbent and Bill Stapleton were the principal arrangers. During his six-year tenure, the band recorded seven albums, including five for the Fantasy label. Anderson wrote some 20-30 charts for Woody's band, including his famed arrangement of Copland's "Fanfare For The Common Man." Anderson left Woody in 1978, and spent 25 years writing arrangements on Broadway. Returning to the tenor sax and jazz in 2003, he has not stopped since and continues to play regularly, mentioning a regular gig he plays with trombonist Jimmy Wilkins (now 97, brother of late Ernie Wilkins).
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