By Don Heckman
It was big band Wednesday at Vitello’s. Like several other clubs around town – notably Steamer’s in Fullerton, Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood, Typhoon in Santa Monica and Vibrato in Bel Air – Vitello’s has worked to keep alive the tradition of large ensemble jazz.
On this night, the musical centerpiece was the Grammy-nominated Chris Walden Big Band. Assembled from an impressive list of Southland A-list players, the Band’s line-up was a perfect choice to perform Walden’s well-crafted arrangements and compositions.
Opening with a jaunty tour through Walden’s view of the blues, the emphasis then shifted gears, spotlighting alto saxophonist Kim Richmond in a richly colored arrangement of the Disney “When You Wish Upon A Star.”
And there was more, including originals clearly inspired by German-born Walden’s fascination with American culture. Among the high points: “Gatsby,” featuring a soaring solo from the always-compelling trombone of Bob McChesney; a whimsical “In the Doghouse”; and a closing, 3-part suite that could have been the atmospheric soundtrack for a shadowy film noir movie.
Walden, who has a busy career as a film and studio arranger/composer, was equally adept with standards, including a high-speed romp through “Cherokee,” an intriguing take on “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” (featuring Walden’s own solo work on flugel horn), and a gorgeously textured “Here’s That Rainy Day” in an arrangement that came closest to presenting a signature Walden big band sound.
Every chart was enhanced by stellar solo work from the Band’s world class players. To mention a few of the memorable efforts: the saxophone work of altoist Jeff Driskill and tenorists Brandon Fields and Rob Lockart, the trumpeting of Wayne Bergeron, the trombone playing of Alex Iles, the guitar of Mitch Holder and the piano of Alan Steinberger. Along with almost everyone else.
But the climax of each set was provided by a non-instrumentalist who, nonetheless, performed with the musical skill and panache of all the Band’s gifted players: special guest vocalist Tierney Sutton.
Making a rare appearance away from her own superb Tierney Sutton Band, she revealed the extraordinary breadth of her many skills. Tierney’s opening “People Will Say We’re In Love” almost immediately energized the entire 18-piece Band. Her version of “Smile” was a tender, poignant rendering of the Charlie Chaplin classic. She sang “I’m All Smiles” in a buoyant, 6/4 swing before reaching into the dark emotions of “Only The Lonely.” And she delivered it all with her remarkable blend of multi-layered musicality, propulsive rhythms and utterly believable story-telling.
Call it a prime evening of large ensemble music, in all its aspects – convincing evidence of why big band jazz deserves to be heard – on a regular basis.
Photos by Tony Gieske.