Live Jazz: The Johnny Mandel Big Band at Vibrato

By Tony Gieske

Johnny Mandel, of whom we all know who that is, is quite a sight when he conducts a big band, first of all because he does this standing up for two entire sets.

Johnny Mandel

This is of course  remarkable for a guy who will be 85 years old next Tuesday [Nov. 23]. Another remarkable thing is the way he registered his delight at how his stuff was being played by a big band full of the speediest fast guys from the studios, which is to say matchlessly. Surely he’s heard it all before.

“Shadow of Your Smile,” “Suicide is Painless,” and “Emily,” among the monumental Mandel works the band tried, came out remarkable in their unashamed — and successful — efforts to woo the ear with assonance and dimension.

And among the wooed was the conductor himself, who accepted the players’ aural outcome with a charming little half smile.

Famed, honored and you might even say beloved for showcasing such singers as Sinatra, Bennett, Shirley Horn, Diana Krall and Barbra Streisand — not that they needed all that much help — Mandel brought intelligence and honest emotion to the best of late 20th century American pop.

Among other feats, this is the cat who doped out the charts for the Grammy-winning Natalie and Nat King Cole hit “Unforgettable,” in which Natalie dueted with her deceased father. Mandel didn’t kill him, of course. There are limits.

Not much you need to add about the brilliant work of the band, which had in it stars like Bob Efford on baritone, Doug Webb and Pete Christlieb on reeds, Ron Stout and Carl Saunders on trumpet, Bernie Dressel on drums, Chuck Berghoffer on bass and Christian Jacob on piano.

The Johnny Mandel brass section

They spoke as one under the Mandel baton, sporting a precision that refreshed  the ear.

Among the awed listeners was the trumpet master Uan Rasey, a pioneer of the movie soundstage, whom we all remember from his solo at the opening of   “Chinatown.” Mandel, who started out as a trumpet man in Boyd Raeburn’s band, joined Rasey for a post-set chat.  And that was a tribute in itself, right?

Photos by Tony Gieske.  To read and see more of Tony’s essays and photos at his personal web site click HERE

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