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.

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.


Big Band Report Jack Bowers United States Cab Calloway Bob Curnow Stan Kenton duke ellington Billy Strayhorn Gene Cipriano Dave Koonse Ron Stout Mike Barone Roger Neumann Lionel Hampton Louis Armstrong Joe Venuti Alvino Rey Harry James Gene Krupa Bobby Sherwood Joe Zawinul Vince Trombetta Jon Armstrong Tom Luer Bob Summers Adam Alesi David Tranchina Geoff Stradling Scott Whitfield Tom Peterson Alex Budman Buddy Rich Alan Kaplan Mark Lewis Madeline Vergari Tadd Dameron Kirk Smith Kid Ory Art Tatum Ivie Anderson Rex Stewart Slim Gaillard Lena Horne Coleman Hawkins Howard McGhee Teddy Edwards Lucky Thompson Buddy Collette Chico Hamilton Charley Harrison Herbie Hancock Frank Mantooth Steve Huffsteter Kim Richmond Jerry Pinter Charlie Ferguson Doug Webb Pablo Calogero Ryan Dragon Chris Conner Matt Gordy Gary Urwin Alan Broadbent Pete Christlieb Bill Watrous Christian jacob Carl Saunders Clifford Brown Bill Evans Bob Florence Woody Herman Putter Smith Irene Kral Sonny Stitt Bernie Dresel Johnny Richards Les Brown Nelson Riddle Billy May Neal Hefti Count Basie Johnny Mandel Henry Mancini Gerald Wilson Andre Previn Mel Torme Charlie Morillas Miles Davis Billy Kerr Will Brahm Bill Mathieu Bill Holman Tom Kubis Andy Martin Rusty Higgins Stan Martin Wayne Bergeron Alex Iles Antonio Carlos Jobim Ray Brinker Frank Rosolino Conte Candoli Lee Konitz George McMullen Eric Jorgensen Ron King Dave Stone Rickey Woodard Bob Efford Jake Reed Gil Evans Marty Paich Claude Thornhill Gerry Mulligan Chris Walden Charlie Parker George Wallington Rich Eames Doug MacDonald Paul Kreibich Chuck Findley Bobby Shew Matt Harris pat metheny Lyle Mays Tom Hynes Bob Sheppard Tim May Sue Raney Bud Shank Barney Kessel Pete Rugolo Dave Pell Phil Woods Freddie Bryant Hank Jones Tommy Flanagan Buddy Catlett Osie Johnson Mickey Roker Julius Watkins Curtis Fuller Willie Dennis Sahib Shihab Ken Nordine Don Aliquo Erik Applegate Paul McKee Clare Fischer Clay Jenkins Dave Glenn Brad Dutz Jim White Peter Sommer John Gunther Bernt Rosengren Horace Parlan Doug Raney John Coltrane Lars Gullin Tim Hagans Don Cherry George Russell Lester Bowie Igor Butman Serge Bogdanov Frank Wess Ernie Wilkins Thad Jones Sammy Nestico Frank Foster Ian McDougall Rob McConnell Melba Liston Dizzy Gillespie Art Blakey Quincy Jones Ray Charles Randy Weston Geof Bradfield Victor Garcia George Fludas Ryan Cohan Clark Sommers Jeff Parker Mike Flick Jack LeCompte


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