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

Jack Bowers By

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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.

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