by Devon Wendell
The 32nd annual Playboy Jazz Festival season kicked off with a free concert in Beverly Hills featuring Bill Cunliffe and his Septet, and the Johnny Crawford Orchestra — a pair of diverse acts preserving pivotal traditions in jazz history.
Opening the program, Grammy-winning pianist/arranger/composer Cunliffe and his players performed a set almost entirely dedicated to Oliver Nelson’s classic album, The Blues And The Abstract Truth. Cunliffe recorded his tribute to Nelson on his 2008 Recording The Blues And The Abstract Truth Take 2 (Resonance), which featured all the original tracks re-arranged by Cunliffe. This was pretty much the basis of his set, starting with “Hoe Down,” which had a rather sloppy intro due to sound problems; but the horn section quickly locked together in harmony. Art Velasco’s trombone solo was especially powerful, matching Cunliffe’s confidently fluid piano stylings.
“Stolen Moments” and “Butch and Butch” were very close to the original arrangements, but without the sense of adventure and risk in the soloing that Nelson, Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, Roy Haynes, Paul Chambers, and Bill Evans brought to the initial 1961 sessions. Though skillful in their own right, alto saxophonist Keith Fiddmont and tenor saxophonist Rob Lockhart played it too safe on their choruses, as they replicated Dolphy and Nelson’s parts.
“Teenie’s Blues” allowed room for a little more freedom in its relaxed blues swing, and Cunliffe stood out, displaying a strong sense of dynamics and harmony, choosing less over more. His two originals were the most fascinating performances of the set, with “Port Authority” featuring a complex, syncopated hard-bop motif. Lockhart and Cunliffe soloed in unison without missing a beat. And Joe La Barbera’s Max Roach-inspired drumming combined with Tom Warrington’s bass to put some fire beneath the band — fire which wasn’t always present on the previous numbers.
Cunliffe’s tribute to Mary Lou Williams (in his words, “my first piano teacher”), “Mary Lou’s Blues,” was outstanding. Instead of opting to mimic Williams’ signature style, Cunliffe’s originality shone through with both elegance and command. Bob Summers added tastefully soulful trumpet work, and Lockhart and Fiddmont played with more energy than on earlier songs.
The Septet closed with a dynamic reading of Nelson’s “Cascades.” Lockhart leaped from the lower register to the high effortlessly, on what Cunliffe designated as “one of the hardest pieces in jazz for a sax player.” Unfortunately the set had come to a close – just as the band was getting thoroughly warmed up. Too bad there wasn’t more time.
Up next: Johnny Crawford, the former child star of TV’s The Rifleman and an original Mouseketeer, demonstrated the wonderfully unpredictable twists in the life of a Hollywood entertainer. Dressed in an elegant tuxedo and top hat, he led his orchestra in a program focusing on standards from the ’20′s and ’30′s, along with the great big band sounds of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie (just to name a few).
Combining his passion for film and music history, he opened with “One Hour With You” from the 1932 movie of the same title. As the band began to swing, Crawford switched from focused conductor to crooner, with a smooth vocal style featuring a fast vibrato. Chris Dawson’s stride piano was the engine driving the backing of the 16-piece orchestra.
On “Miss Wonderful” (made popular by a 1929 Ted Weems recording), Crawford sang and danced with grace and humor, occasionally invoking the spirit of Al Jolson. Dan Weinstein and Andrew Lippman’s trombone rhythms added to John Hatton’s dark bass, creating a unique sound. Violinists Johana Krejci and Ruzanna Sargsyan played the melody line, as guitarist John Reynolds performed a whistle solo, also reminiscent of Jolson.
Rodgers and Hart were also one of the focal points of Crawford’s performance. “The Blue Room” showcased his charm as the band took us back in time with convincing authenticity. Drummer Larry Klein’s Jo Jones-like rhythms kept the beat with colorful vibes playing from Randy Woltz.
Crawford delved into film history again with “Three Little Words,” from the 1930 movie “Check and Double Check.” The piece was originally sung by Bing Crosby and arranged by Ellington, and Duke’s presence was certainly felt here. John Reynold’s playing captured the pre-Charlie Christian guitar stylings of Lonnie Johnson and Freddy Green — the perfect match for this era. And the period atmosphere was further maintained when Reynolds switched to banjo and swung in time with Dawson’s piano work on Buddy Rogers’s playful piece, “Hello Gorgeous.”
The program swung into high gear with one of the show’s highlights when the full brass section danced along with Crawford’s spirited vocal delivery on George and Ira Gershwin’s “They All Laughed.” Appropriately enough, the performance closed with Irving Berlin’s “Isn’t This A Lovely Day,” as Crawford humorously twirled an umbrella, singing to the gleeful sun soaked audience. Even when he forgot the lyrics and began scatting, his enthusiastic dance steps enlivened every vocal nuance, every beat of the orchestra’s ballroom swing.
It was the perfect climax to this opening, free community concert of the 32nd annual Playboy Jazz Festival. A concert featuring a pair of acts that took us back into daring and romantic times for jazz. And, most importantly, did so with fun and style.