Live Jazz: The Ron Jones Jazz Influence Orchestra with April Williams at Vitello’s

By Don Heckman

On the way home from Disney Hall Sunday, the traffic on the 101 magically – and unexpectedly —  opened up, and we suddenly realized we could reach Vitello’s just in time to catch the second set by the Ron Jones Jazz Influence Orchestra.

Call it an unusual sequence – from the Christmas music of Bach and Vivaldi, performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, to a big jazz band in action.  And “big” is precisely the right word for this organization, which expands the usual 17 to 18 piece big band instrumentation to 22 players, including a French horn section.

Add to that the announcement the evening would include an extremely rare performance by singer April Williams, whose management of Vitello’s Upstairs Jazz Room has established one of the Southland’s important new jazz venues.

April Williams with the Ron Jones Jazz Influence Band
April Williams with the Ron Jones Jazz Influence Band

Combined, it was all too good to miss.

Vitello’s was jammed when we arrived, the tables and booths overflowing with listeners, as the Jones players filled the stage from one side of the room to the other. Fortunately we found a nook where we could sit, drink some wine, and prepare to expand our evening of Christmas music from Baroque to bebop.

Not all bebop, that is.  But plenty of it in the vigorous soloing of players such as saxophonists Fred Selden, Pete Christlieb, Doug Webb and Gene Cipriano, pianist Alan Steinberger, trumpeter Bob Summers and trombonist Bob McChesney.

Most of the music in the set, however, was dedicated to Christmas songs, arranged to apply the rich tonal resources and jazz-driven rhythms of the 22 piece ensemble to the familiar canon of Christmas classics.,

“It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” arrived in a lushly harmonized medley with “Silent Night.”  Contrastingly, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” surfaced with a briskly jaunty rhythmic underpinning, driven by Dave Tull’s energetic drumming.

Thad Jones’ lovely “A Child Is Born” was next.  It hasn’t become a Christmas classic yet, but it should.  Especially via the beautifully arranged version by the Jones Influence Orchestra, with musically touching contributions from pianist Steinberger.

Johnny Mandel’s Grammy- and Academy Award-winning “The Shadow Of Your Smile” generated yet another perspective. Not exactly a Christmas item, it added a unique touch to the fascinating program via an arrangement featuring the fine French horn playing of Tawnee Lillo and Jean Marinelli.

The performance peaked with the arrival of April Williams on stage with a puckish smile on her face, clearly in the mood to have fun.  And she did, singing Steve Allen’s “Cool Yule,” making the most of lyrics announcing the arrival of St. Nick:

           “From Coney Island to The Sunset Strip
           Somebody’s gonna make a happy trip
          Tonight, while the moon is bright.”

Clearly enjoying every moment she had with the backing of the Jones Jazz Influence Band, April topped off the number with a call for everyone to:

“Have a Yule that’s cool
Yeah, a cool Yule.”

It was the perfect climax to an evening that had begun with Bach and Vivaldi and wound up with big band jazz, all of it illuminating the far-ranging musical inspiration that Christmas has created over the centuries.  And there’s still another week and a half to hear even more Christmas music before the joyous day arrives.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

To read the iRoM review of the Los Angeles Master Chorale at Disney Hall click HERE or scroll up.

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