By Don Heckman
Wednesday was another one of those mid-week jazz nights in L.A. A lot of choices about what to hear, with the usual freeway determinants – traffic and/or distance – playing a role in where to go.
But I also was in the mood to hear something a little unusual. And Ron Kalina’s harmonica jazz gig at Vibrato seemed like an intriguing choice, enhanced by the fine rhythm section team of guitarist Barry Zweig, bassist Pat Senatore and drummer Kendall Kay.
There was, however, one small problem. When I first started listening to jazz, the idea of jazz harmonica used to be as unappealing to me as the tinkly sound of the vibraphone. One of my visions of jazz hell at that time was a performance of a band co-led by a vibes player and a harmonica player. All of that changed, of course, as I became familiar with the work of, among many others,Toots Thielemans, Terry Gibbs, Milt Jackson and many others.
I didn’t expect Kalina, performing before a fairly sparse gathering, to necessarily provide any major competition for those stellar figures. And, tp be perfectly honest, he didn’t. But what he did do was provide a pleasant evening of jazz tinged tunes, mostly from the Great American songbook. And he wisely shared much of the solo space with his back-up trio, occasionally livening things with a vocal.
Tunes such as “Laura,” “My Romance,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “It Could Happen To You” were delivered in a similar middle tempo groove, with Kalina’s harmonica lines moving smoothly from the original melodies to his own buoyant paraphrasing. On “I’m Old Fashioned,” Zweig stepped out to demonstrate his impressively inventive skills.
An uptempo version of “Bernie’s Tune,” a line often played by Gerry Mulligan, added more spice to the program. In contrast, there were some several atmospheric slow tunes – “The Very Thought of You,” “My One and Only Love” and “In The Wee Small Hours.” Kalina vocalized on several, mixing his sometimes foggy baritone lines with harmonica insertions, creating the classic feeling of a being in a jazz cabaret room.
That perception, in fact, underscored much of the music. Nothing wrong, of course, with reminding the listeners of what it was like to be in a 52nd St. jazz bistro. Especially when the music is being played with the enthusiasm and high spirits of Kalina and his prime time partners. In sum, a fine way to spend a Wednesday jazz night in L.A.
Photo by Bob Barry.