By Tony Gieske
You’d expect the guys from the Conan O’Brien show band to put on a pretty good set and play quite well to boot, and so they did Sunday night in a Red Carpet Jazz Series program at Vitello’s, the swanky little joint in Studio City.
Tenor saxophonist Jerry Vivino, who sometimes leads the O’Brien show’s Max Weinberg 7, helmed a quartet of undercover jazz stars, frequent rock sidemen and pit-band veterans from New York, hanging around town, no doubt, while O’Brien regroups after his unscheduled departure from NBC.
Drummer James Wormworth, who subs for Weinberg on the show when Max tours with Bruce Springsteen, backed the sensation-prone Vivino along with roaring bass player Mike Merritt, the son of Art Blakey star Jymie Merritt, and Scott Healy, another Weinberg stalwart who is a brilliant master of block chord pianism and a bunch of other glittering stuff on the grand piano.
They devoted themselves to vintage 1950s classics like “Seven Steps to Heaven” and “Pent-up House,” punctuated by New Orleans flavored shouters such as “Caldonia” and “Sunny Side of the Street,” both laced with rafter-ringing vocals by Vivino.
On a hard-pumping original, Vivino lifted up his soprano saxophone and played it simultaneously with his tenor, Rahsaan Roland Kirk style. He brought this feat off without a hitch, achieving a sound like a Bach organ chord and swinging, too. (That took homework.)
The swinging part was enabled here, and all night, by the blues-driven Wormworth, who once played with the Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin; the brightly intelligent Healy, who scored an award-winning short film called All Bookies Wear Speedos; and the supersound producing Merritt, who finished off the rafters.
Healy, and in their turn Wormworth and Merritt, produced compelling solo work without doing a lot of shouting, and when he felt like it, as he did during ballads on tenor and a moving passage on flute, so did Vivino.
Read and see more of Tony Gieske’s jazz essays and photos at his personal web site Tony’s Page.