The La Barbera Brothers: Jazz DNA

Nicholas F. Mondello BY

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It's an interesting phenomenon how certain families enter and distinguish themselves in this marvelous world of jazz—The Joneses, Heaths, Candolis, Royals, Breckers, Mangiones, and others. Over the last five decades—even many more if one goes farther back to when they were young children playing in the family band with Mom and Pop—the La Barbera Brothers—John, Joe and Pat have graced stages with pantheon artists such as Bill Evans, Buddy Rich, Buddy DeFranco, The DIVA Jazz Orchestra, Tony Bennett, Elvin Jones and many more. Each of the La Barbera Brothers has a resume that stands most formidable in the biz. When their collective musical accomplishments (and, lets not forget their music education contributions) are aggregated together—stellar performances, Grammy nominations, gold and platinum recordings and much more, the La Barberas undeniably rank as one of the all-time great families in jazz.

This past June, the Brothers La Barbera took time from their individual performing, recording and teaching schedules, to form their big band and, under John's direction, recorded Caravan at EastWest Studios in Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, they took the band, complete with the recorded material on a highly successful two-week tour of Japan. Caravan is expected to be released in January 2014.

All About Jazz: I guess the best place to start is to ask you about the recent Japan Tour.

John La Barbera: Well, in short it was fantastic. A phenomenal band, almost all of the guys from the new recording in LA were on the tour.

AAJ: How did that tour come about?

JLa B: My brother Joe has worked with the producer, Yoshie, for a number of years and she expressed interest in hosting a big band. Brother Pat has also worked with her. We started planning and talking and it came to fruition.

AAJ: Who was on the band for the tour?

JLa B: The saxophones were Brian Scanlon, Kim Richmond, Pat La Barbera, Rob Lockart, and Bob Carr. Trumpets were Bob O'Donell, Willie Murillo, Lee Thornburg and Clay Jenkins. Trombones were Steve Armour, Erik Hughes, Ryan Dragon and Ken Kugler. Don Thompson on Keyboards, Joe La Barbera, drums, and Tom Warrington, bass.

AAJ: Why the "Usual Suspects?"

JLa B: It was very opportune that the guys from the recording, with a couple of exceptions, were able to do the tour. It's a lot of material—three CDs worth—and, since they had played on the previous recordings, it saved a lot of rehearsal time.

AAJ: Joe and Pat were on the band and the recording, right?

JLa B: Yes, Pat and Joe are featured along with Clay Jenkins.

AAJ: What cities did you cover on the Japan Tour?

JLa B: Nagoya, Tokyo and Yokohama.

AAJ: What was the overall audience reception?

JLa B: It was excellent. The audiences know their music and are very discerning. The tickets in Tokyo sold out in two days when they went on sale last April and it was the same with the other venues as well.

AAJ: Had you been in Japan before?

JLa B: Yes, I'd been there three times before with Buddy DeFranco and the Glenn Miller Orchestra. That was over 43 years ago and a lot has changed.

AAJ: How did the tour tie in with the recent June album recording?

JLa B: Well, Nick, knowing that the tour was on gave us the incentive to get the new material recorded and manufactured before the tour. It was a lot of pressure, but I'm kind of used to that after all these years of doing this.

AAJ: What were some highlights of the performances?

JLa B: Well, probably Willie Murillo's feature on "A Night in Tunisia," Pat and Joe's feature on "Wild Side," Clay and Pat featured on my new tune "Accordin' to Gordon," a tribute to Joe Gordon, "Tiger of San Pedro" and "Dancing Men" always brings the house down.

AAJ: Any "road" anecdotes while on the tour?

JLa B: Nothing monumental but a lot of food and drink.

AAJ: Any plans to return to Japan?

JLa B: Yes, we're already booked for 2015.

AAJ: How were you able to tie in the tour with your teaching schedule at the University of Louisville? Were they involved?

JLa B: Having been there for 23 years, my schedule is very flexible. Also, the administration is very supportive of its faculty's extracurricular work and visibility around the world.

AAJ: Please tell me about the genesis of the new album.

JLa B: Well, Nick as you know full well, I took two years off from big band writing after the Fantazm album to compose a suite for euphonium and symphony orchestra. It is dedicated to my father, Joe La Barbera who gave us our musical training and a head start in the business. He learned to play the euphonium at Father Baker's orphanage in Lackawanna, NY and from there he learned almost all the instruments. He was our first teacher. This is something I've had in mind since 1988 and I finally got around to it. However, my brain wasn't on hold for that time period and I had a lot of ideas hatching. So when I got back to the big band it was all out scoring.

AAJ: What was the recording situation like? Who was the engineer?

JLa B: Tally Sherwood has done almost all of the Jazz Compass projects and all of my CDs. He's not only an excellent engineer, he's also a musician and can read scores. We recorded at EastWest studios in LA. It has an 80-channel Neve board that's bigger than most NYC apartments. As you can hear on the CD, the sound is excellent.

AAJ: Who was on the session?

JLa B: Same as the Japan personnel but Wayne Bergeron played lead trumpet, Les Benedict played lead bone, and Bill Cunliffe played keyboards.

AAJ: It's coming off of the Grammy-nominated Walk on the Wild Side CD?

JLa B: No, Fantazm came after Wild Side.

AAJ: What was your compositional approach on the album overall?

JLa B: You know, at first it started to be kind of a concept album; I had all of these destination and travel titles: "Caravan," "Atlantis," "Voyage," "Trinacria," but I didn't want to put myself in a corner and so it worked out to be more of a high power or energetic—no ballads—recording than I had originally envisioned. These things seem to have a life of their own.

AAJ: How has your writing style changed if at all—since Buddy Rich, DIVA, et al.?

JLa B: I think the main thing is that I'm writing for myself not another leader. With Buddy, Woody, Basie, Watrous, etc., the job was to satisfy the leader and especially the leader's audience. Even though Buddy didn't have one fixed style like the Basie band, there still were certain things he and his audience expected. Writing for myself forced me to look inside to see what I really heard. Also, as I learned from Bill Holman, as you mature you become your best editor and clutter and redundancy never make it to the page.

AAJ: What are the tunes on the album?

JLa B: Here's the list: "Caravan" (Juan Tizol / Duke Ellington), "Voyage" (Kenny Barron), "Roman Notes" (John La Barbera), "Atlantis" (McCoy Tyner), "Forgotten But Not" (John Goldsby), "Incompatible" (Incompatibilidade De Genios) (Jao Bosco), "Accordin' to Gordon" (John La Barbera), "Trinacria" (John La Barbera) and "Young Rabbits" (Wayne Henderson).

AAJ: Gordon Goodwin told me he likes to "challenge" Wayne Bergeron, et al. How did you "challenge" the "Suspects?"

JLa B: This being the third CD with these guys, I pretty much knew what they could do, so I pulled out all the stops. As for WB, just listen to "Voyage," "Gordon," and "Atlantis." As a trumpet player, I wouldn't want to even look at those notes.

AAJ: What's the anticipated release date?

JLa B: The release date is January 21, 2014 on the Jazz Compass label and distributed by City Hall. New CDs are always released on a Tuesday—wish I knew why. We anticipate a CD release party in LA around the 18th of January.

AAJ: Any chance of taking the band out on a U.S. or Regional tour?

JLa B: Actually I'm in talks to secure some of the summer festivals coming up. Curtis Fuller has agreed to be a featured soloist with us and I'm working on arrangements of some of his originals.

AAJ: OK, where do you plan to put your Grammy? This was a pleasure. Thank you, John.

JLa B: Not going to touch that one. Thanks, Nick.

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