Live Jazz: The Jack Sheldon Big Band at Catalina Bar & Grill

By Tony Gieske

Saturday night at Catalina’s in Hollywood, Jack Sheldon sat silently on his little stool while the hornfolk in one of his cherry-picked big bands did the same on theirs. Coming up was his classic vocal on Count Basie’s old track about yo’ mama’s absence of drawers, but first the left hand of God had to finish playing on the grand piano at Sheldon’s immediate right.

Jack Sheldon and Mitchel Forman

The right hand belonged to the Holy Ghost, it seemed, but on a closer look both limbs turned out to be attached to a gent named Mitchel Forman. A monster form of avant-garde stride was resounding in the bass clef, supporting or inflaming a treble clef that made you think Robert Downey Jr. had programmed Iron Man to play like Bill Evans.

One chorus, two choruses, three choruses, each more gut-busting and smarter than the last. Wasn’t this guy supposed to be a fusion person, a Mahavishnu culprit? Not tonight. This was a blues worthy of Sun Ra or Jelly Roll.

Jack Sheldon and Ray Brinker

But we’re talking the great Jack Sheldon here, on a night when he was going to show a roomful of his veteran fans that he was back in top form. Nothing was going to faze him. He started to sing about yo’ mama in his down and dirty blues voice, a little bit country, sly and wicked and Sheldon all the way.

After a scorching Sheldon trumpet chorus, one of many to come, the boys in the band took turns cavorting in their accomplished ways. Trumpeter Ron Stout, man of a thousand trumpet sections, started quietly and built one of his Jamesian — Henry, not Harry — choruses. Scott Whitfield took the trombone on a well developed high velocity passage. Baritone man Lee Secard yielded not in the speed sector on his ungainly horn, nor did the jovial bassist Kevin Axt on his.

Sheldon summed the number up to take it out, and this remarkable concert band finished with a single tutti chord that rang with musicianly authority.

The Jack Sheldon Big Band

Sheldon, who sounded a little like a bebop Johnny Cash, never appeared winded in the slightest as he sang his favorites including “Day by Day,” “Here Comes that Rainy Day,” and the dreaded “Where Do You Start?” The latter, a successor to “Wind Beneath My Wings” in my contrived sentimentality derby, became in Sheldon’s hands a wistful thing from the Peggy Lee stylebook, and even I got a little wetness in the old eye — especially after Jack’s angelic trumpet solo.

“Anthropology” boasted a flawless account of the theme by the whole band at once; the instrumental “Cherokee” brought another high speed Whitfield solo, and “Tangerine” went over nicely as a bossa nova. Bright and bouyant soloists lifted all these pieces.

And by the end of the set, Sheldon’s heart was thoroughly warmed up, so that he could sing “I’ll See You In My Dreams” in a wise and friendly manner, bringing the snowy-topped audience to its no longer weary feet.

Photos by Tony Gieske.

Read and see more of Tony Gieske’s jazz essays and photos at his personal web site tonyspage.com.

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