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Swingin' on a Riff . . . Hangin' by a Thread?


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Betty and I returned to Albuquerque on Memorial Day after attending Swingin' on a Riff, the latest in a series of marvelous semi-annual events presented by Ken Poston and the Los Angeles Jazz Institute for more than twenty years at venues in and around L.A. This one was held May 23-26 at the Los Angeles Marriott Airport Hotel. The music ranged from very good to spectacular, with seventeen world-class concerts by some of the finest ensembles and musicians you're likely to hear anywhere, exemplifying its secondary title, "Big Band Masters of the 21st Century." The concerts were supplemented by four films, four panel discussions and the usual pleasures of seeing old friends and greeting new ones. There was one troubling aspect, one that left me with mixed emotions, but we'll deal with that in greater detail after completing the business at hand, which is to summarize as best we can what took place in the Marriott's Marquis Ballroom and Meridian Room starting Thursday morning and continuing through Sunday evening. In the words of Oscar Hammerstein II, "let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start . . ."

Thursday, May 23

As some readers may know, Swingin' on a Riff was devoted almost exclusively to larger ensembles past, present and, in some cases, future. We arrived in Los Angeles early Wednesday afternoon and were able to sleep late Thursday morning, as Poston's "bonus" event the day before involved a long bus trip to and from Las Vegas and nothing was scheduled until 11 a.m., at which time the Fullerton College Big Band was called upon to open the program. They came well-prepared and ready to roar, even though director Bruce Babad was delayed by a fender-bender and arrived after the first three numbers had been played. The first two were vocals ("Fly Me to the Moon," "Day In, Day Out"), nicely sung by Greg Fletcher, preceding "Senator Sam" and a feature for bass trombonist Cody Kleinhaus whose title I couldn't hear. With Babad now on the scene, Fletcher sang the Cab Calloway favorite "Minnie the Moocher," and the band performed Bob Curnow's tasteful arrangement of a medley of tunes associated with Stan Kenton before addressing Don Schamber's fast-moving "Due and Playable" (a.k.a. "Cherokee"). In keeping with Sunday morning's theme, "The Birth of the Cool," one of the soloists on "Playable" was Fullerton trumpeter Miles Davis (I'm not making that up). That would have been an ideal closing number, but the band chose instead to ring down the curtain with David Letterman Show trumpeter Mark Pender's "I Like It," six minutes of tedious funk that I didn't (like, that is). Other soloists of note were alto Will Jackson, tenor Roman Brambila and, especially, pianist Robert Perez.

David Angel, a name new to me, was up next, leading an excellent band through a genial program that opened with Duke Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss" and included Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing" and several originals, namely "Out on the Coast," "Rangoon Express," "Vafo," "Wild Stawberries" and "All Right," the last a blues that started quietly and built to a tumultuous climax in which I distinctly heard the sound of trains colliding. Alto Gene Cipriano was featured on "Kiss," guitarist Dave Koonse on "Coast," trumpeter Ron Stout on the lovely "Strawberries." The fast-moving "Vafo" was a highlight, with crisp solos by Koonse, tenor Phil Feather, trumpeter Jack Coan and baritone Bob Carr. A handsome, well-played session that led to the first of four panel discussions (one each day), all of whose themes were the same: "Jazz Composers' Workshop." This one, moderated by Larry Hathaway, had as its panelists Mike Barone and Roger Neumann who discussed their early interest in jazz and musical techniques they had learned on the way to their eventual status as respected composer / arrangers.

After lunch, the first of the event's four films, "The Swing Era in Los Angeles," was presented in the hotel's Meridian Room (the site of all films and panels). Included were clips of Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Marshall Royal, Skinnay Ennis, Joe Venuti, Alvino Rey, Harry James, Gene Krupa, Stan Kenton, Bobby Sherwood and others who helped bring swing music to Los Angeles in the '30s and even earlier. Afterward, it was back to the Ballroom for one of the week's unequivocal highlights: a stellar performance by arranger par excellence Mike Barone and his band (for which the auditorium was roughly one-quarter filled; more about that later). The opener, Barone's dazzling arrangement of the traditional hymn "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" was followed by a lustrous version of the standard "I'm Confessin,'" the up-tempo "Sour Sally" (more widely known as "Sweet Georgia Brown"), Rimsky-Korsakov's title selection from Barone's album "Flight of the Bumble Bee," and a beguiling take on Victor Herbert's "Indian Summer." After another album theme, Joe Zawinul's "Birdland," Barone reached deep into his treasure trove of early standards (as he is wont to do) and unearthed another winner, "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone," after which the band closed with Barone's rapid-fire version of "Limehouse Blues" entitled "Limes Away." No big names in the band, but you'd never know it when listening to razor-sharp solos by saxophonists Vince Trombetta, Jon Armstrong, Glen Garrett, Tom Luer or Brian Williams; trumpeter Bob Summers, or twenty-two-year-old pianist Sam Hirsh who was outstanding on "Sour Sally," "Bumble Bee" and "Limes Away." Speaking of outstanding, that also describes drummer Adam Alesi who drove the band relentlessly with help from bassist David Tranchina. A tough act to follow.

As good fortune would have it, supper followed, so there was a two-hour break before Roger Neumann's Rather Large Band arrived onstage to perform not one but two rather large and impressive sets. Neumann couldn't have chosen a more agreeable opener than the breezy standard "Let's Fall in Love," wonderfully played with solos to match by pianist Geoff Stradling and alto Phil Feather. Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train" was another winner, with solo space this time for trombonist Scott Whitfield, trumpeters Summers and Coan, tenors Tom Peterson and Alex Budman. "The Juicer Is Wild," written by Neumann for the Buddy Rich Band, hummed merrily along behind Brian Scanlon's alto, Alan Kaplan's trombone, Coan's trumpet and Peterson's tenor. Coan, who it's said is an octogenarian (that's hard to believe) had center stage to himself, playing and scatting on the aptly named "Jack Coan's Blues," which preceded the laid-back "Easy Chair" (sounded a lot like "Old Folks") and the lovely "I'll Be Home" (solos by Summers on "Chair," Neumann [tenor] and flugel Mark Lewis - Trumpet on "Home"). After Bird's "Au Privave" (Coan on muted trumpet, Whitfield on trombone, altos Scanlon and Feather dueling simultaneously), vocalist Madeline Vergari (Mrs. Neumann) closed the set with likeable renditions of "Sunny Side of the Street," "Since I Fell for You" and "There'll be Some Changes Made."

There was more to come. After a brief intermission, the band returned with a shuffling blues, "Takin' a Walk," followed by Tadd Dameron's "Good Bait" and three more vocals by Vergari ("That Old Black Magic," "The Shadow of Your Smile," backed by Neumann's tenor, and an Ellington medley) before the band rang down the curtain with the crowd-pleasing "Stop Those Blues," played at warp speed and testing soloists Stradling, trumpeter Summers, tenor Peterson, trombonist Kaplan and bassist Kirk Smith (each of whom passed the exam with flying colors). Trombonist Alicia Ard had one chance to solo, on "Good Bait," and acquitted herself quite well. Enough for one day. Off to bed.

Friday, May 24

The second of the week's four films, "Central Avenue Breakdown," was centered on the street that put L.A. jazz on the map, and featured brief clips of Kid Ory, Curtis Mosby, Art Tatum, Nat Cole, Duke Ellington, Dorothy Dandridge, Ivie Anderson, Rex Stewart, Slim Gaillard, Lena Horne, Coleman Hawkins, Howard McGhee, Teddy Edwards, Lucky Thompson, Buddy Collette and Chico Hamilton, among others. The morning's opening concert, again in the ballroom (there were no poolside concerts this year), introduced the UCLA Jazz Ensemble directed by the personable Charley Harrison. The rather truncated set (less than forty-five minutes) opened with another Dameron tune, "Lady Bird," and included "Lion and the Lamb," Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance," Frank Mantooth's breathtaking arrangement of "Young and Foolish" (kudos to pianist Kiefer Shackleford and lead trumpet Forrest Powell), Bill Russo's Cuban favorite "23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West," and the standard "April in Paris," played Basie-style, complete with "one more time!" The band was well- rehearsed, the soloists above average. A genial prelude to lunch.

The afternoon session opened on a bright note with a set by trumpeter Steve Huffsteter's band that could best be described as tasteful. Huffsteter's charts (he wrote all of them) were exemplary, and the ensemble played them with alacrity, opening with "Diz Section" (sparkling solos by guitarist Tom Rizzo, flutist Kim Richmond and soprano Alex Budman) and continuing through "Nostalgia" (Jerry Pinter, tenor sax; Charlie Ferguson, piano), "Grizzled" (I'm guessing at that title, whose soloists were Ferguson and tenor Doug Webb), "Night Walk" (Huffsteter, trumpet; Budman, soprano), "Sneaky" (Huffsteter, muted trumpet; Pablo Calogero, baritone; Richmond, alto), "Melancholia" (young Ryan Dragon, trombone), the flag-waving "Joint Tenancy" (a.k.a. "Alone Together," a heated two-trumpet shoot-out between Huffsteter and Mark Lewis) and "A Waltz and Battery," showcasing Webb, trombonist Whitfield and bassist Chris Conner. The drummer was Matt Gordy, one of an impressive number of accomplished timekeepers heard during the week. Those who were present (and there were precious few) saw and heard another outstanding concert.

Sandwiched between Huffsteter's set and the last concert of the afternoon, by Gary Urwin's superlative Jazz Orchestra, was the second of four panel discussions, moderated by Ken Borgers with panelists Huffsteter, Urwin and Alan Broadbent. While there was no doubt that Urwin's ensemble, which is set to record its fourth album later this summer, would be first-class, he made absolutely certain by enlisting the services of a couple of well-known heavyweights, tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb and trombonist Bill Watrous. As if that weren't enough, Urwin opened the set with his stellar arrangement of the standard "It Could Happen to You," enfolding dazzling solos by Christlieb and pianist Christian Jacob. Christlieb was masterful again on the ballad "My Foolish Heart," complementing forceful statements by Jacob and trumpeter Carl Saunders. Jacob, Saunders and trumpeter Jeff Bunnell were the able soloists on Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring," while Charlie Davis stepped out of his usual lead trumpet chair to solo on "Beauty and the Beast." Watrous shared center stage on the next four numbers, soloing alone on "A Beautiful Friendship," with Saunders and Christlieb on Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debbie," tenor John Luer on Luiz Bonfa's "The Gentle Rain," with Christlieb again on "Girl Talk." Saunders wrote and soloed on his warm tribute the the late Bob Florence, "Dear Mr. Florence," before the orchestra closed the bracing session with Bird's "Shaw Nuff," featuring Watrous, Christlieb, Saunders and Bunnell. One had a hunch that many of those in the sparse but enthusiastic audience might have happily delayed their supper to hear more.

Supper prevailed, however, after which New Zealand-born pianist Alan Broadbent, who has been busy composing and arranging for various groups and accompanying singers almost from the day he left the Woody Herman band in the early '70s, expressed his happiness to be part of a big band again, and set about proving it with a series of captivating charts that spanned two sets and consumed more than two hours. Broadbent took the first solo on his composition "Between the Lines" (based on "All the Things You Are"), with other discourses by trombonist Whitfield, baritone John Mitchell and alto Glen Berger, and was out front again on "Swee'pea," written for Billy Strayhorn. Bruce Babad's soprano sax shimmered on "Love in Silent Amber" (written for the Herman band), as did Doug Webb's tenor on "The Long White Cloud." Babad and Carl Saunders shared solo honors on the Latin-style "Chris Craft," Broadbent and tenor Jerry Pinter on the well-grooved "Woody and Me," which ended the first set.

Broadbent opened Set 2 with his striking arrangement of "America the Beautiful" (as you've never heard it before), with Pinter and Saunders providing the solo voices. Broadbent and bassist Putter Smith were showcased on the lovely "Encino Nights," alto Berger on the irresistible "Don't Ask Why," dedicated to Irene Kral. The session would have ended with "Sonny Stitt," a charismatic tour de force for Saunders, tenor Webb and drummer Bernie Dresel, but the audience clamored for an encore, and Broadbent obliged with another of his admirable compositions, "Journey Home," enhanced by his lithe piano, Saunders' always meteoric trumpet and Webb's muscular tenor. A lovely way to end an evening.

Saturday, May 25

Saturday morning began, as Friday had, with a film, this one "Jazz West Coast: The Big Bands and Arrangers," surveying bandleaders and arrangers from Shorty Rogers, Stan Kenton, Johnny Richards and Les Brown to Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Neal Hefti, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Johnny Mandel, Henry Mancini and Gerald Wilson, with additional footage of Nat Cole, Andre Previn and Bobby Darin. As the film wasn't shown until 11 a.m., a lunch break preceded the day's opening concert, by Chicagoan Lou Rovner's Small Big Band (a tentet with six front-liners and a four-member rhythm section). I doubt that anyone was prepared for what Rovner and his group had to offer, which should be filed under "pleasant surprises." While the songs may have been familiar, Rovner's quirky arrangements clearly were not. Rovner not only takes liberties with melodies and harmonies, he sometimes turns them upside down and inside out, as for example on "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" or "Paper Moon," neither of which was easily recognizable but was nonetheless captivating. Rovner opened with Mel Torme's seldom-heard "Hi Fly," then reworked the usually even-tempered "Body and Soul" into a lively swinger that encompassed brawny solos by trombonist Charlie Morillas and baritone Jay Mason. The tongue-in-cheek "Ball Game" and whimsical "Paper Moon" (which Betty thought was overly long) were followed by the standard "Like Someone in Love," played in the style of Neal Hefti's "Li'l Darlin,'" with a chorus of "Blues in the Night" thrown in for good measure. The band closed with a relatively plain-spoken reading of Miles Davis' "Milestones" (solos by pianist Mark Massey, tenor Billy Kerr, bassist Randy Landas). Other soloists of note were Kim Richmond (alto, soprano sax) and trumpeter Ron Stout. Drummer Jack LcCompte anchored an able rhythm section that included Massey, Landas and guitarist Will Brahm. Another not-to-be-missed concert (which, gauging the size of the audience, many people apparently did).

Panel 3, which followed, was moderated by Kirk Silsbee, cross-examining panelists Rovner, Bill Mathieu and Bill Holman, whose concerts would subsume the evening session. First, however, it was time for another explicit highlight: composer / arranger / saxophonist extraordinaire Tom Kubis and his seventeen-member band, which lit up the stage with the leader's consistently bright and resourceful charts. The ambling "Uptown Blues" (solos by Kubis on tenor sax, trombonist Andy Martin, trumpeter Jeff Bunnell) was followed by the more aggressive "Hey Georgia" ("Sweet Georgia Brown"), featuring Rusty Higgins on alto sax and Stan Martin (Andy's brother) on trumpet, and Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone," another sharp arrangement that showcased Rich Bullock's deep-voiced bass trombone. Trumpeter Wayne Bergeron was showcased with trombonist Alex Iles and tenor Doug Webb on Kubis's clever "High Clouds and a Good Chance of Wayne," the always amazing Andy Martin on the standard "Alone Together," alto saxophonist Sal Lozano on the frisky "Some of These Days" (on which the trumpets doubled as banjos!), Kubis's friend and longtime guitarist Mike Higgins on Antonio Carlos Jobim's gentle samba, "Triste." Kubis wrapped the package with his high-stepping arrangement of the trad favorite "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home," whose exuberant rhythms enfolded animated solos by everyone in the trombone section. Kubis played not a single number from his latest CD, Live and Unleashed!, and (to his credit) never made a fuss over its release (Crab Apple Records 130301). High marks to drummer Ray Brinker who enlivened the band with his power and enthusiasm. An appetizing prelude to supper.

The Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra, directed by Mathieu, kicked off the evening session with an engaging hour-plus of music mostly written and / or arranged by Bill Russo while he was plying his trade as a trombonist in the Stan Kenton Orchestra (later, he was widely known as Prof. William Russo, director of the Center for New Music at Chicago's Columbia College and composer of music for symphonies and the theatre as well as several operas). With one exception ("Dusk," a third-stream piece), the songs chosen by Mathieu were of the straight-ahead variety including Russo's compositions for trombonist Frank Rosolino ("Frank Speaking") and trumpeter Conte Candoli ("Portrait of a Count") and the standard "Lover Man," especially arranged for alto saxophonist Lee Konitz. George McMullen, Bob Summers and Fred Selden sat in for Rosolino, Candoli and Konitz. The concert opened with Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow" (Eric Jorgensen, trombone) and continued with another lovely melody, "Autumn in New York," featuring lead trumpeter Ron King. Also heard were "I've Got You Under My Skin" (King, Selden), "Fascinating Rhythm" (Charlie Morillas, trombone, Roger Neumann, tenor sax. Bruce Babad, alto, Doug Webb, tenor), "Sophisticated Lady" (Babad, trumpeter Stan Martin); "You and the Night and the Music" (Babad, bassist Dave Stone); "Shadow Waltz"(McMullen) and "Silhouette," a song written by Mathieu as his "audition piece" for the Kenton Orchestra, featuring Summers' muted trumpet. The session closed, as it should have, with Russo's most widely known composition, "23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West," admirably played with ripping solos by Babad and trombonist Erik Hughes.

Saturday evening's final concert, by the Holman band, was a real head-scratcher. On the one hand, the ensemble was keen and ready, as one would expect from a band that rehearses regularly; no fault could be found with the soloists, and the charts bore the conspicuous Holman imprint. On the other hand, only one selection on the program was new (at least to me); the rest of what was played had been heard before, much of it under similar circumstances, and indeed half of the eight numbers (including the encore, "Bemsha Swing") were recorded at earlier LAJI events, for the albums The Bill Holman Band Live ("Woodrow," "Zoot 'n Al") and Hommage ("Zamboni," "Bemsha Swing"). The only number fresh to these ears was "Sweet Spot," a tasteful ballad showcasing the awesome Carl Saunders on trumpet and Doug Webb on soprano sax. Holman reached back to 1954 for "Lover Man," written as a feature for Lee Konitz with the Stan Kenton Orchestra; to 1988 for "St. Thomas" (from the album World Class Music) and to 1995 for "No Joy in Mudville" (from the album A View from the Side, both on JVC). So what to make of it? Well, if you didn't mind hearing these songs again, you probably had a most enjoyable time. As noted, the band was first-rate, and there were laudable solos by Saunders, Webb, alto Bruce Babad (sitting in for Konitz on "Lover Man"), trumpeters Ron Stout and Bob Summers, alto Billy Kerr, tenor Rickey Woodard, baritone Bob Efford, trombonists Scott Whitfield and Erik Hughes, pianist Christian Jacob and young drummer Jake Reed. Me? I'd have preferred to hear a few new charts (or the Holman classic, "Stompin' at the Savoy"). Aside from that, no complaints. Three days down, one to go.

Sunday, May 26

Sunday's film No. 4, "The Birth of the Cool and Beyond," highlighting clips of Miles Davis / Gil Evans, Shorty Rogers, Marty Paich and the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, among others, was followed by the weekend's centerpiece, a brunch and three concerts in the Marquis Ballroom, which had been rearranged so that those who sprang for food were seated at tables in front of the bandstand, others in more conventional seats behind a railing. The combination of music and food drew what was probably the week's largest audience (although the bar had been set rather low). The first of the concerts, "The Real Birth of the Cool: The Music of Claude Thornhill," showcased arrangements by Evans and a barely post-teen Gerry Mulligan, performed by an all-star ensemble conducted by Hollywood composer / arranger Chris Walden. Included were two of Mulligan's compositions ("Five Brothers," "Jeru") and his arrangements of Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite" and "Donna Lee," Noel Coward's "Poor Little Rich Girl," "Rose of the Rio Grande" and George Wallington's "Godchild." Evans arranged "Robbins' Nest," "Anthropology" and Thornhill's theme, "Snowfall." The over-all impression was one of amazement at how well these charts have stood the test of time. The band was remarkably tidy, while the soloists comprised the usual suspects plus alto Ann Patterson, baritone Bob Efford, pianist Rich Eames and guitarist Doug MacDonald. Trumpeter Saunders was especially mind-blowing on "Donna Lee." Bassist Putter Smith and drummer Paul Kreibich rounded out the first-class rhythm section.

The second concert, "The Music of the Miles Davis Nonet," was performed by a nonet (what else?) led by trumpeter Chuck Findley who sounds nothing like Miles (insert sadness or applause here), playing songs from the "Birth of the Cool" album in the order in which they were recorded (and reprising the original solos note- for-note). While that may seem to be easy, it really isn't, and Findley and his mates deserve high marks for making the effort. The band rested between numbers by swapping "Miles Davis stories," most of which were too indelicate to repeat here. All, however, were humorous in their own way. Two numbers from the Thornhill book, "Jeru" and "Godchild," reappeared here, alongside such paragons as "Move," "Venus de Milo," "Budo," "Israel," "Deception" and "Boplicity." The nonet received a well- deserved standing ovation.

Concert No. 3, I must confess, left me cold, even though it featured one of my favorite trumpeters, the incomparable Bobby Shew. This was "Miles Ahead: The Classic Miles Davis + 19 Collaboration with Gil Evans." Classic or not, I've never been a fan of the album or the arrangements. The tunes were played without respite, as on the album, starting with the first five: "Springsville," "The Maids of Cadiz," "The Duke," "My Ship" and "Miles Ahead." After pausing momentarily to turn the album over (figuratively speaking) and reset the needle, Shew continued with "Blues for Pablo," "New Rhumba," "The Meaning of the Blues," "Lament" and "I Don't Want to Be Kissed (By Anyone but You)." Shew and the seventeen-piece ensemble that accompanied him were directed by Matt Harris. Everyone seemed pleased by the performance; I was bored, as I was when I heard the original recording, even though Shew was a more than commendable replacement for Miles. To each his own, I suppose. As Ellington said, "It don't mean a thing . . ."

After brunch, many of those in the audience adjourned to the Meridian Room for the fourth and final panel discussion, moderated by Helen Borgers with panelists Kim Richmond and Chris Walden. A third panelist, Bob Curnow, who was to lead his L.A. Big Band Reunion in the week's endmost concert, was unable to be there owing to back surgery. In Curnow's absence, Shew stepped in to lead the ensemble, which performed arrangements by Curnow, mostly of the music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays. There was yet one more concert before the supper break, by Richmond's Concert Jazz Orchestra, performing nine of the dozen selections on their recent CD, Artistry, a tribute to Stan Kenton, in whose orchestra Richmond played in 1967. Among them were Richmond's contemporary versions of Kenton's theme, "Artistry in Rhythm," as well as the venerable "Intermission Riff" and "Peanut Vendor." Richmond wrote "Anchor of Hope" and "Poetry" with Kenton in mind. Completing the program were Neal Hefti's "Virna," the standards "Invitation" and "Over the Rainbow," and one song from a movie: Allie Wrubel / Ray Gilbert's "Zip-a-Dee-Doo- Dah" (from the 1946 Disney film Song of the South). Richmond calls his version "Zippidy Altered," and for good reason, as the original melody has been recast and twisted out of shape. Too bad, as that happens to be one of my personal favorite songs. It sounds okay on the album, not so much in concert. Solos, however, were splendid throughout, especially guitarist Tom Hynes on "Over the Rainbow" and Richmond (alto) on "Invitation." "Poetry," which closes the album, was placed third here, with "Anchor of Hope" the finale. A respectable live performance, but to hear the orchestra at its best, track down the CD.

By now the light at the end of the tunnel was shining brightly, as Bobby Shew led the L.A. Big Band Reunion onstage for the week's final concert. After apologizing for Curnow's absence and assuring everyone that he wanted to be present to lead the band but was barred by his doctors, Shew opened the set in the best way possible, with Curnow's wonderful arrangement of Metheny's "It's Just Talk," featuring trombonist Dave Woodley. Bob Sheppard's soprano glistened on "James," and he was heard again on alto (with trumpeter Ron Stout and trombonist Alan Kaplan) on "Chet's Call," which Shew said was "the only bebop song" in Curnow's library. Three more charming tunes ("Wherever You Go," "Stranger in Town," "Every Summer Night") followed, the last spotlighting guitarist Tim May and Stout, before Shew reached for his flugelhorn to enhance Metheny's loveliest melody, "Always and Forever," written for his parents. Jerry Pinter's smooth tenor was featured on "See the World," Sheppard's alto and Stout's trumpet on "Afternoon." Stout stepped up to solo one last time on the rhythmic finale, "Minuano." With that, the four days had come to a close, and if any of those who came were less than happy they must be extremely hard to please.


This leads us to the blip on the radar screen alluded to earlier, one that has been growing (or, more accurately, shrinking) for the past several years. That would be attendance, which seemed (to me) to have reached an all-time low at Swingin' on a Riff. Even though Poston has already planned another event in October (see below), it led me to wonder how many more he can possibly afford to sponsor. To draw a picture, there was a time when I could barely elbow and shove my way through crowded hallways at a Poston event and had to scramble to find a seat, even in my favored back row. Not this time. The hallway outside the Marquis Ballroom was for the most part eerily hushed and sparsely populated, and I probably could have found a seat in or near the front row if that's what I'd wanted. Let's be honest; when bands led by Holman, Kubis, Barone, Broadbent, Neumann, Urwin and Richmond, showcasing musicians of the caliber of Shew, Christlieb, Watrous, Bergeron, Saunders, Andy Martin and many others can't lure at least two hundred people into a ballroom that seats 650, it's a sure sign that dark clouds are on the horizon. Holman's Saturday evening concert, and the Sunday evening performance by Curnow's L.A. Reunion Big Band, conducted by Shew, were perhaps the best attended (not counting the Sunday brunch, which included three concerts). Neither one, however, drew an audience of more than two hundred—and even that may be a generous estimate.

Granted, this is probably not something readers especially want to hear about a jazz event, but it's hard to brush aside the facts when they are staring you in the face. Before continuing, I should hasten to point out that these observations are in no way meant to cast aspersions on Ken Poston, for whom I have the greatest respect and who deserves all the applause we can give him for planning and carrying out these impressive events for so many years. There is no denying, however, the slow but steady decline in attendance at these twice-yearly LAJI events over the past few years. The question thus becomes, what has caused it? The answer isn't easy to grasp, as several diverse factors are in play. The sluggish economy is no doubt one of them but by no means the only one. Perhaps some of those who attended in the past simply decided not to return, their desire to see live jazz waning as costs for airfares, hotel stays, food and other amenities kept rising. Some others who used to show up on a fairly regular basis no longer attend because—not to put too fine a point on it—they are deceased. And, sad to report, they are not being replaced by the younger generation. At Swingin' on a Riff you could count on the fingers of one hand (or at least two) the number of "younger" people (say, age thirty or below) in the audience. The college bands (usually four, this year two) showed up, unpacked their gear, performed, re-packed and headed back to school, passing up a chance to see and hear seasoned professionals from whom one may assume they could have learned a thing or two. Unlike paying customers, students can hang around and listen for free should they choose to. In most cases, they choose not to.

While I've not spoken to Poston about financial matters, I find it hard to believe he could be breaking even, let alone making money from these semi-annual get-togethers. But even if he has managed to keep his head above water, should the current downward trend continue it won't be long before he can't. Maybe he has an answer, something that would reverse course and keep these jazz conclaves, which seem outwardly to be on life support, alive and well for years to come. I know I don't. The bottom line is, more people have to become aware of these singular events and decide to attend; if that doesn't happen, the future looks bleak.

On the Horizon . . .

And on that happy note, a few words about the next Poston / LAJI event, Jazz Themes from Hollywood: A Celebration of Jazz at the Movies, to be held October 24-27 at the Marriott LAX Hotel. Themes that have been lined up so far are "L.A. Confidential: An Evening of Jazz Film Noir," "A Tribute to Johnny Mandel," "Dreamsville: An All-Star Tribute to Henry Mancini," "Jazz Digs Disney," "Sue Raney and Heart's Desire: The Songs of Doris Day," "Barefoot Adventure" (Bud Shank's music from the films Barefoot Adventure and Slippery When Wet), "The Fast and the Furious" (Shorty Rogers' music from The Wild One, The James Dean Story and Hot Rod Rumble), "Jazz and Kerosene," "Blues in the Night: The Songs of Johnny Mercer," "Great Songs from Lousy Movies," "The Swing's to TV: Jazz Themes from the Small Screen," "Va-Va-Voom!" (Jazz interpretations by Barney Kessel, Pete Rugolo and others) and "The Dave Pell Octet Plays Burke and Van Heusen." More to be announced. For information, phone 562-200-5477.

Further east, Phil Woods, Freddie Bryant and Greg Caputo are set to headline the second Berkshire Gateway Jazz Weekend, July 25-28 in Lee, MA. Caputo will lead a sixteen-piece big band with guest soloist Woods, an NEA Jazz Master and multiple Grammy Award winner who returns to the Berkshires after appearances at the Pittsfield City (MA) Jazz Festival in 2006 and 2011. In addition to the headline performances, the weekend will include "Jazz About Town," a new component featuring local performers in outdoor settings. More events will be announced as the festival nears. For information, go online to www.berkshiresjazz.org

Another Feather in Jazzed Media's Cap

Jazzed Media's documentary film Blue Flame: Portrait of a Jazz Legend, which surveys the life and career of bandleader Woody Herman, has received a 2013 Hermes Creative Award—Gold in the documentary film category. This is the eleventh film award for Graham Carter, owner of Jazzed Media in Denver, CO.

And Last But Not Least . . .

Fifteen years ago, during a phone conversation with Mike Ricci, overseer of a fairly new web site named All About Jazz, I asked if he was in need of any reviewers. "We could use someone to review big bands," he replied. And that is how Big Band Report (and Big Band Caravan) came into being. I've had a marvelous time writing these columns, and especially befriending musicians, many of whom I've never met in person and know only through their superlative big-band recordings, about which I've had the great privilege of sharing a few words of appraisal and support. But all good things must end, and while it pains me to say so, this is the last column I'll be writing for AAJ. Lest it be misread, however, that I am "retiring" (at age seventy-eight), that is definitely not the case. I'm in good health, and plan to continue reviewing big-band (and other) CDs as long as I am able. So to those who have recorded, are recording or plan to record, the message is: keep those albums coming, and I'll do what I can to share their message with others. It has been a pleasure, friends, and now we'll close as we always do, with one last reminder to keep swingin'!

Recent Big Band Releases

Phil Woods / DePaul University Jazz Ensemble
Right to Swing
Jazzed Media

There must be something about DePaul University that Phil Woods finds especially irresistible, as the celebrated alto saxophonist returned to the Chicago campus in November 2011 to record his fourth album in less than seven years with director Bob Lark's intrepid jazz ensemble. Actually, that's not altogether precise, as only the second half of the session encompasses the full ensemble; the five-movement Rights of Swing, first recorded by Woods' octet in 1961, opens the album and is performed by a tentet comprised of members of the larger band with Woods as quarterback and principal soloist.

Besides composing and arranging Rights of Swing, Woods wrote every other number on the album and arranged "Hank Jones" and "Blues for Lopes." The other charts are by Carl Kennedy ("Weak End"), Paul Dietrich ("Pairing Off") and Cormac McCarthy ("Casanova"). The opening suite, extensively updated since its debut more than half a century ago, is sharp and well-drawn, especially so considering the fact that students are sitting in for the likes of Tommy Flanagan, Buddy Catlett, Osie Johnson, Mickey Roker, Julius Watkins, Curtis Fuller, Willie Dennis and Sahib Shihab. There's nary a bump in the road, and Woods isn't the only soloist who earns plaudits. Trumpeter Dave Kaiser is impressive on the second movement, "Ballad," while elsewhere, saxophonists Brent Griffin, Sean Packard and Mark Hiebert, pianist Pete Benson, trombonist Andy Baker and vibraphonist David Bugher more than hold their own. The rhythm second (Baker, Bugher, bassist Matt Ulery, drummer Keith Brooks) is solid from end to end.



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