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

By Don Heckman

Studio City, CA.  It wasn’t quite Johnny Mandel’s birthday last night.  Not yet.  But it was close enough to the actual date – November 25 – to celebrate the 87th anniversary of the great composer and arranger.

And the packed crowd at Vitello’s enthusiastically joined in a group singing of “Happy Birthday.”  The gift giving of the evening, however, came from Johnny, who pleasured his fans with a grand selection of his music, performed by a big band collective of the Southland’s finest players.

Over the course of the evening’s two sets, the music – all of it arranged and/or composed by Mandel – offered a fascinating overview of the many rich, diverse accomplishments in his more than six decade career.

Mandel led his big band from a position in front of the saxophones, music stand positioned in front of him as he stood, laid back and relaxed, between two guests’ tables.  Introducing each song, he recalled many of the circumstances behind the composing or arranging of many pieces.

Johnny Mandel

The opening number, “Centerpiece,” immediately illustrated Mandel’s ability to impart a big band arrangement with all the loose-limbed swing of a small ensemble.  And he was particularly aided in that accomplishment by the Basie-like groove of the rhythm section – pianist Bill Cunliffe, guitarist John Chiodini, bassist Dave Stone and drummer Bernie Dresel.

A pair of follow-up pieces added more slants on the Mandel musical perspectives: First, “Not Really the Blues,” an irresistible big band firestorm originally written for the Woody Herman band. Next, shifting gears completely, a gorgeously orchestrated rendering of his classic movie theme, “Emily.”

The Johnny Mandel Big Band

More film themes surfaced with “Black Night Gown” and “I Want To Live” from the Susan Hayward film of the same title (the latter featuring the baritone saxophone of Bob Efford).  Add the unforgettable ballad, “The Shadow of Your Smile,” featuring the mellow trumpet of Carl Saunders, and “Suicide is Painless,” the theme song for M*A*S*H, and a briskly swinging “Cinnamon and Cloves,” written by Mandel and Alan Bergman.

And let’s not overlook the impressive soloing from all sections of the Mandel band: a tenor saxophone battle between Pete Christlieb and Steve Wilkerson; stellar alto saxophone and flute work from Carol Chaikin and Sal Lozano; some superb trombone soloing from Bill Watrous and the entire trumpet section – including Saunders, Bob Summers, Ron Stout and Pete De Siena; pianist Cunliffe’s crisp comping and the propulsive but subtle drumming of Dresel.

As an added attraction, Wilkerson, playing clarinet, his wife Andrea Baker playing guitar and singing, offered jazz-tinged readings of “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Avalon.”

In addition to the Happy Birthday finale, the big band wrapped with a beautifully textured version of Mandel’s Academy Award-nominated “A Time For Love.”  It was an appropriate ending to a memorable evening, from an artist whose creative accomplishments have profoundly affected – and continue to affect – the world of music, in the U.S. and beyond.

Photos by Bonnie Perkinson.

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