Live Jazz: The Phil Norman Tentet at Vitello’s

By Don Heckman

The Phil Norman Tentet’s music is a refreshing reminder of the fine jazz that has been produced over the years by medium sized – 9, 10, 11 pieces – bands.  Some sterling examples come quickly to mind, headlined by the classic Miles Davis Birth of the Cool band.

In their performance at Vitello’s Saturday night, the Norman Tentet made it clear that, like their predecessors, their music displays the far ranging creative possibilities of a mid-sized jazz chamber ensemble.  With an instrumentation – two trumpets, trombone, three saxophones, piano, guitar, bass, drums and percussion – that is a mini-version of a big jazz band, the range of sounds available to a talented arranger/composer are impressive.

Phil Norman Tentet

And with arrangers like Alan Broadbent, Scott Whitfield, Christian Jacob, Roger Neumann and the late Bob Florence writing for the Tentet, it’s no wonder that every number in the set bristled with energy and imagination.

Ron Stout

The opening number, “Sonny’s Step,” arranged and composed by Broadbent, was a good example.  With a brisk, memorable melody framing solos from trumpeter Ron Stout and guitarist Steve Gregory, building up to a climactic surge from Dick Weller’s drums, the stage was set for the musical banquet to come.

Christian Jacob

As it quickly did.  Among the highlights in this delectable jazz cuisine: Christian Jacob’s rhythmically perky take on the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein “Surry With the Fringe On Top,”; Whitfield’s lovely version of Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” (featuring memorable soloing from trumpeter Carl Saunders and flutist Rusty Higgins); “Mendocino Nights,” another Broadbent original composition, its atmospheric textures wrapping amiably around solos from pianist Jacob and bassist Kevin Axt.

And there was more, much more.  Each new piece effectively recalled the pleasures of the cool West Coast mid-sized bands of the ‘50s, re-imagined for the 21st century in utterly compelling fashion.

The Norman Tentet doesn’t make nearly as many live appearances as they should, and one hopes there will be many more.  But in the meantime, they’re well represented on recordings. Their latest, Totally Live, was recorded at Catalina Bar & Grill.  And a new studio album, Encore, is scheduled for release in the coming months.

Photos by Tony Gieske.

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