Live Jazz: The Johnny Mandel Big Band at Vitello’s

By Don Heckman

Vitello’s was packed to the gills Saturday night.  And with good reason.  Johnny Mandel was making one of his rare appearances, leading an assemblage of Southland jazz all-stars in an evening surveying his long, productive career as a composer, arranger and songwriter.

At 86, recovering from hip problems and walking with a cane, Mandel nonetheless was a dynamic bandleader, conducting from a cramped position directly in front of the saxophones, standing between two tables full of guests.   His whimsical sense of humor was switched on, and he introduced many of the pieces with a wry, occasionally sardonic, recollection.

Johnny Mandel

The familiar Mandel items were on full display: “Emily,” “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “Suicide Is Painless” (the theme from M*A*S*H), several selections from his score for the film, I Want To Live. Most featured the band’s many stellar soloists – tenor saxophonists Pete Christlieb and Steve Wilkerson, baritone saxophonist Bob Efford, trombonists Scott Whitfield and Alan Kaplan, trumpeters Bob Summers, Ron King and Carl Saunders, pianist John Campbell, among others..

And there was more, reaching across decades of composing and arranging for films, television, recording and big bands: a hard swinging piece he wrote for the Woody Herman band in the ’40s – “Not Really The Blues”; a bossa nova done for Sergio Mendes: “Cinnamon and Cloves”; a muscular arrangement of drummer Tiny Kahn’s “T.N.T.”; a tune inspired by the Krazy Kat cartoon, written for the Artie Shaw Band.  All of it, individually and in sum, providing a fascinating gallery of musical portraits from an extraordinarily creative career.

Sue Raney

Interestingly, the band didn’t pick up their instruments for one of the evening’s most mesmerizing moments.   With no advance notice, Mandel introduced singer Sue Rany to sing “Where Do You Start?” backed only by Campbell’s quietly intimate piano accompaniment. The song, with music by Mandel and lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, is a stunning example of lyrical musical/poetic songwriting at it finest.  And so, too, was Raney’s exquisite, story-telling interpretation, capturing the essence of the song’s poignant tale.

Other contributions added to the non-stop pleasures of this memorable musical evening.  Start with Carol Chaikin’s fine lead alto playing, driving Mandel’s richly harmonized saxophone section passages with ease.  Add to that the energetic drive of the rhythm section – with the firm flow of bassist Chuck Berghofer, the energetic drive of drummer Ray Brinker, the Freddie Green-like strumming of guitarist John Chiodini and the all-purpose comps and fills of Campbell.

And don’t forget the collective participation of every member of the Band (including those whose names I haven’t mentioned).  Most are among L.A.’s A-list studio players.  Given an opportunity to play an evening-full of superb music, they not only provided their unerring craftsmanship, they made every note come alive.

No wonder Johnny Mandel was smiling so much.

* * * * *

Johnny Mandel photo by Tony Gieske.

Sue Raney photo by Bob Barry.

3 thoughts on “Live Jazz: The Johnny Mandel Big Band at Vitello’s

  1. Oh God I wish I had been there to witness this evening of memorable music made more memorable by the omnipresence of the the legendaary Johnny Mandel. Thank you for your vivid recollection Don Heckman, I knew I would regret not being there.

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