Brian Arsenault’s Short Takes: New CDs from Rob Morsberger

February 18, 2013

Early Work 1986-1995  (Hieroglyph Records)

Part of You (Hieroglyph Records)

By Brian Arsenault

Singer-Songwriter and composer Rob Morsberger’s lyrics linger even if he can’t much longer.  He has terminal brain cancer which, as he says, means:

Walking with “footsteps in the shadows . . . No light, only shade.”

When not much more can be expected from a tired love:

“Just be there to wake me up when I cry out in my sleep.”

When walking on the beach with one you love and watch the sand as the tide comes in:

 “The waves erase every detail, driven by the wind blowing in your hair.”

And for those you treasure the most:

 “This isn’t kindness, this is love.”

Rob Morsberger

Rob Morsberger

Some of this was written years ago, some only recently, but it all seems particularly poignant now.

I wanted to write about Rob Morsberger’s work now so that maybe a few more people will care about him and his music while he’s still here.  Many already do.

If you are real lucky, you saw some of his recent tour dates. Let’s hope for some more.

Cancer may claim him some time in the not too distant future, but that stinking disease can’t claim his music.  And in that way and through his beloved sons, he’ll live on.

We are fortunate to have been given one treasure in the recent release of  Early Work 1986-1995, a double CD look back

 His voice on the early stuff is less pleasing than on later work, but it’s expressive and compelling, as his lyrics always are. Here he gives us a bit of doo wop, zydeco, torch songs and plaintive ballads.  As well as some angry images:

 “The Dogs of Anger make a terrible sound . . . There is a killer instinct trying to break free.”

 That could have been written only weeks, not decades, ago. Or maybe it’s that human nature in all its variations just doesn’t change.

Boones, our cat, only comes in to where I’m listening when a rare song plays.  When she sits through it all, it’s really good.  She entered and stayed for “Like/Dislike” from which the beach quote above comes.

 “Everything comes down to what she likes and dislikes.”

 I know. I keep quoting lyrics.  This is a poet, folks, as well as a classically trained musician who has listened to everybody, really listened, be it Schubert, Dylan, Lennon or Patti Smith, with whom he has played.  Playing and arranging for Patti would be enough for most of us.

Rob Morsberger Part of You CDThe other recent gift is Part of You, for his youngest son with whom he holds hands on the album cover.

The title song rises like a hymn and continues like a libretto.  A familiar of the best of classical church music.  If I tried to convey what he says herein to his son I would only diminish it. But you can hear it.

“Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” is remarkable.  Do you know the story of Jacob?  In our secular age, we forget that The Bible contains many marvelous tales and we fail to read them out of fear — of what, I don‘t know.

Jacob is the guy who grapples with an Angel of God all night until he finally gets a blessing and a pardon of his sins. Jacob just won’t let go. I think Rob is wrestling with the Angel that is his Music.  Can God, any god, deny that?

“The Russian Cartographer” is about someone he shared a hospital room with and I know something about that.  From a busted up biker who risked the wrath of the nurses to have a smoke, to a mad North African wandering the hallway looking for his damaged head, such people pass by and leave you to your imagination.

“Good Laugh” is delightful and heart wrenching at the same time. I will always hear his son’s laugh somewhere deep.

Actually, the preceding two sentences could suffice as my review of Part of You. There isn’t much else to say that matters.

To read more reviews, posts and columns from Brian Arsenault click HERE

Live Jazz: Dream Street and Bobbi Page at Vitello’s

February 16, 2013

By Don Heckman

There’s no group quite like Dream Street.  True, there was a boy band with the same name active for a few years around the turn of the century.  But they were nothing like the seven person Dream Street ensemble that took the stage for a delightful Valentine’s celebration Thursday night at Vitello’s.

Start with the remarkably intriguing instrumentation: violin, cello, bassoon, guitar, bass, percussion and vocals.  Not exactly the line-up one often sees on stage in a jazz club.  And, even more uniquely, not the music one usually hears in that setting, either.  Dream Street, under the direction of guitarist/arranger/composer Stan Ayeroff, with the vocal stylings of Bobbi Page, brings fascinating perspectives to an imaginative range of material, from Songbook classics to original songs.

Thursday night’s program was an impressive display of all that and more.  Over the course of twenty songs the Dream Street program offered a program that never faltered, maintaining an irresistible sequence of compelling songs.

Bobbi Page

Bobbi Page

Page was at the heart of the action.  A busy and successful studio singer whose voice can be heard on countless soundtracks and recordings, she is also a dynamic performing artist in her own right.

Singing almost every number, she applied her warmly expressive voice and rich interpretive qualities to such standards as “Just One of Those Things,” “Night and Day,” “Why Don’t You Do Right,” “I Got Rhythm,” the classic bolero “Cuando Vuelve A Tu Lado” (“What A Difference A Day Makes”) and, of course, “My Funny Valentine.”  In one of the evening’s memorable moments, both “What’ll I Do?” and the Ayeroff original, “To Us, To Life, To Love” were sung with the intimate accompaniment of Ayeroff’s guitar.

But Page didn’t stop there, also adding other originals by Ayeroff, including “All Those Things” (sung in Portuguese) and the touching “Make Me A Poet” and “Highway of Love.”

Sid Page, Leslie Lashinsky and Bobbi Page

Sid Page, Leslie Lashinsky and Bobbi Page

The setting for each song made the most of the unusual timbral qualities of the instrumentation, particularly well seasoned by the lush tones of Leslie Lashinsky’s bassoon.  At times, Page’s voice was arranged as another element in the luxurious blend of Paula Hochhalter’s cello, Sid Page’s violin and Lashinsky’s bassoon.  Faster tunes such as “Centerpiece” were driven by the gently swinging rhythms of bassist Domenic Genova and percussionist Brian Kilgore.

Brian Kilgore, Bobbi Page, Sid Page and Domenic Genova

Brian Kilgore, Bobbi Page, Stan Ayeroff and Domenic Genova

As I said earlier, there’s nothing quite like Dream Street and Bobby Page.  If their names are unfamiliar to you, they shouldn’t be.  New musical experiences are always welcome.  And the Dream Street players and Bobbi Page have a seemingly endless supply of eminently listenable new material to offer.


Don’t miss Dream Street the next time they make a welcome appearance in your neighborhood.   But if that opportunity doesn’t arise, check out their self-titled CD, which includes many of the songs performed at Vitello’s.

* * * * * * * *


Photos by Faith Frenz. 

CD Review: Jimi Hendrix “People, Hell and Angels”

February 15, 2013

Jimi Hendrix

People, Hell and Angels, (Experience Hendrix/Legacy Recordings)

By Brian Arsenault

So I’m thinking, ‘Hey, Jimi’s been gone better than four decades, so how can they keep releasing new albums?’  Or rather, I’m thinking that right up to the second cut, “Somewhere,” when I start thinking, feeling what a joy it is to hear him play. On songs and versions I’ve never heard before.

“Somewhere” has this wondrous wah-wah work, you know what I mean, that morphs into his waterfall playing, into this rolling rock tour de force.

Then comes “Hear My Train A Comin’.”  That’s surely a blues classic by now, isn’t it? Pick your version. This one is a tour de force to the second power, maybe the tenth.

We knew the truth when Jimi was still alive, and this version of “Hear My Train A Comin’” demonstrates once again, that rock guitar cannot advance from here.  It hasn’t in 40 plus years. It would be like saying that you can build a better Mozart or Miles.

Jimi was the “just gone” guitarist that Eric and Peter and Jimmy and all the others aspired to be.  He sometimes builds a riff where you think a mortal can’t go — “Easy Blues” — pulls it off and then just slides into something else.  But there was a price to be paid to get there. We know that now.

Jimi was also the acid romance poet Morrison aspired to be. Listen to the lyrics of “Somewhere” to know that — as if you didn‘t already. Another price to be paid.

I’ve been featuring two songs so far in this review but there’s more.  Oh yes, there’s so much more.

There’s a just super version of Elmore James’ “Bleeding Heart.” We’ve always known Jimi had good taste in music, great taste.  Who could range from James to Dylan with not a trace of self consciousness?

“Have mercy people.”

On “Let Me Move You” we hear Jimi trading leads with Lonnie Youngblood’s sax.  Sax, that’s something I don’t think I’ve ever heard featured in Hendrix songs I know. But it works like a bear in this so-fast, beer-drinking, butt-wiggling. road house song where a fight breaks out at 11:30 while it’s played.

“Izabella” is a true Jimi “love” song; longing and lust intermingle.  And “Crash Landing” tells of love’s labors lost with a whole lot of vitriol.

There’s some secondary stuff on the second half of the album, it’s true, and the closing song, “Villanova Junction Blues,” isn’t even a finished piece.

But the next to last song, “Hey Gypsy Boy,” got me to thinking there is in Jimi’s music some mysterious stuff. What is the wellspring?  Oh I can hear all the rock and blues and r&b influences too but there’s something that just came from somewhere else.

Charlie Parker had that too.  Part of the tradition.  A supreme realization of what came before crafted anew.  But where did he come from, really? Some other time and place we only imagine.

This isn’t truly an album.  It’s a thrown together collection of previously unreleased tracks. There will probably be more.  It’s about cash flow after all. But when it comes out March 5 those under the spell will of course get it. Because magic in pieces is still magic.

* * * * * * * *

To read more reviews, posts and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Live Jazz: Charlie Haden, Larry Goldings and Tri-Tone Asylum at Castle Press

February 14, 2013

By Don Heckman

Pasadena CA.  It was a night to remember.  A jazz concert in a printing company. The machine-filled Castle Press in Pasadena, to be precise.  With some of the performers positioned on a stage that consisted of a 460-ton printing press.   Add to that the party-like atmosphere, with listeners scattered across folding chairs and bleacher seats, quaffing wine as they enjoyed the music and the unusual setting.

But  what made last Monday’s program so special — beyond the remarkable location — was the announced presence of iconic bassist Charlie Haden.  Teaming up with pianist Larry Goldings, he was performing a day after he had received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Recording Academy (the Grammys).

Haden was stricken with post-polio syndrome in 2010 (the consequence of a polio attack when he was 15).   Beyond some jamming at home with Pat Metheny,  he has performed rarely since 2011. And some audience members, aware of his physical maladies, apprehensively awaited his appearance as the climactic moment in the performance.

Charlie Haden

Charlie Haden

But there was no need to worry about the quality of Haden’s playing.  He and Goldings only did one number, but they made the most of it.  And it was a distinct pleasure to again hear the rich, dark timbres and melodic lyricism that have always been the uniquely appealing characteristics of Haden’s bass playing.   Add to that his intimate musical dialog with Goldings, occasionally calling up his classic Jasmine recording with Keith Jarrett.

The evening’s program, presented by MUSE/IQUE, was titled Jazz Laid Down.  In addition to Haden and Goldings, it featured the determinedly contemporary cross-over jazz of the electro-acoustic band TriTone Asylum.  The six piece ensemble included Allen Mascari,  tenor saxophone, Peter Sepsis, bass, Todd Wolf, drums, Jameson Trotter, piano, Andy Waddell, guitar, and Philip Topping, EVI.

Trit-Tone Asylum

TriTone Asylum

And what, you might ask is an EVI?  The initials stand for Electronic Valve Instrument.  Although it contains its own synthesized sounds, it also can be used  with sampled sounds, and is played with the same lip control and three-valve articulation of an acoustic trumpet.

Both the ensemble sound and the players’ interaction were impacted by the textures of Topping’s EVI playing.  Blending the basic acoustic setting of a jazz quintet with the variable tones of the EVI, they brought some fascinating new views to such familiar jazz items as Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower,” Ralph Towner’s “Icarus” and Hampton Hawes “Sonora.”  The latter item also served as accompaniment for a jazz-driven solo dance by Haylee Roderick.

Ultimately, however, it was Haden’s appearance that was the high point of this unusual evening.  And one left with the hope that his impressive performance was an important step on his road to full recovery.

Photos by Ben Gibbs.

Picks of the Week: Feb. 12 – 17

February 13, 2013

By The iRoM Staff

Los Angeles

Valentine’s Day

Steve Tyrell– Feb. 13 – 17. (Wed. – Sun.)  Steve Tyrell.  Vocalist Tyrell applies his appealing, jazz-driven style, enhanced by his warm Texas roots, to five evenings of memorable Valentine’s Day celebrating.  Catalina Bar & Grill.   (323) 466-2210.

– Feb. 14 (Thurs.)  Dream Street & Bobbi Page.  The combination of guitarist Stan Ayeroff, the amiable acoustic chamber music of Dream Street, and the tender, evocative singing of Page is a welcome choice for another celebration of the day of love.   Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

– Feb. 14. (Thurs.)  Carol RobbinsTony Gala.  Harpist Robbins sets the Valentine’s Day mood in the first set, followed by the romantic vocals of Gala.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

– Feb. 14. (Thurs.) Nancy Sanchez.  Award-winning jazz vocalist Sanchez displays her many impressive talents.  Steamers.     (714) 871-8800.

Denise Donatelli

Denise Donatelli

– Feb. 14. (Thurs.)  Denise Donatelli.  She was nominated again, but Denise didn’t win a Grammy this year, although she should have.  And here’s a great opportunity to hear why her singing is so special, as she applies her lustrous sound and intimate interpretations to a program of Valentine love songs.  Prestons at the Loew’s Hotel Hollywood.   (323) 491-1000.

– Feb. 14. (Thurs.)  Taylor Eigsti.  Once a youthful piano prodigy, Eigsti is now a fully matured jazz artist.  He’s joined by Dayna Stephens, saxophone, Harish Raghavan, bass and Eric Harland, drums.  Blue Whale.    (213) 620-0908.

Sue Raney

Sue Raney

– Feb. 14. (Thurs.)  “A Gershwin Valentine.”  And a colorful Valentine at that, enhanced by a full spectrum of musical vocalizing from Sue Raney, Michael Dees, Kurt Reichenbach and Pinky WintersA Jazz Bakery Movable Feast at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.    (310) 271-9039.

– Feb. 14 – 16. (Thurs. – Sat.)  “Romance at the Phil”  Celebrate a classical music Valentine’s week with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Charles Dutoit, with soloists Gautier Capucon, cello, and Carrie Dennis, viola, in a program of romantic classics from Mendelssohn, Mozart and Strauss.  Disney Hall.    (323) 850-2000.

– Feb. 14 – 17. (Thurs. – Sun.)  The 13th Annual Newport Beach Jazz Party. It would take much more space than we have to mention all the world-class jazz talent at the annual Newport event.  But trust that – as always – the four engaging days of the Party will offer non-stop jazz at its finest.  The Newport Beach Jazz Party at the Marriott Newport Beach Hotel and Spa.  For details, check the web site.    (949) 759-5003.

And More

Tierney Sutton and the Turtle Island Quartet

Tierney Sutton and the Turtle Island Quartet

– Feb. 15. (Fri.)   Tierney Sutton and the Turtle Island Quartet. “Poets and Prayers.” The unique combination of vocalist Sutton and the Turtle Island players finds inspiration in the music of Joni Mitchell and John Coltrane, and the poetry of Hafiz and Rumi.  A Jazz Bakery Movable Feast at Zipper Hall.    (310) 271-9039.

– Feb. 17. (Sun.)  The Chieftains. The irresistible playing and singing of the Chieftains remind us of the many pleasures of Irish music.  Disney Hall.  (323) 850-2000.

– Feb. 17. (Sun.)  Tim Weisberg Band.  Vitello’s.  Flutist Weisberg leads the fine musical collective of keyboardist Barnaby Finch,  bassist David Hughes, drummer David Derge and guitarist/vocalist Chuck AlvarezVitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

– Feb. 17. (Sun.)  Pat Senatore Trio with Josh Nelson.  Jazz crosses the generations via the well-crafted, veteran bass work of Senatore and the adventurous piano playing of the youthful Nelson.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400.

– Feb. 15 & 16. (Fri. & Sat.)  Paco Pena Flamenco Vivo” The brilliant Flamenco guitarist Pena is joined by a dynamic band of guitarists, singers and dancers.   Fri.: Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.      Sat.: Valley Performing Arts Center. (562) 916-8501.     (818) 677-3000.

San Francisco

The Manhattan Transfer

The Manhattan Transfer

– Feb. 15 – 17.  (Fri. – Sun.)  The Manhattan Transfer.  No one does jazz vocal ensemble singing better than the Transfer.  And they’re back to their best with the welcome return (from an illness hiatus) of the superb singing of Cheryl BentyneYoshi’s Oakland.   (510) 128-9200.

Washington D.C.

– Feb. 14 – 17. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Jerry “The Iceman” Butler.  Once the lead singer of the Impressions, soul singer Butler – at 73 – is still out there, fully justifying his entry into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. Blues Alley.    (202) 337-4141.

New York City

– Feb. 12 – 18. (Tues. – Mon.)  The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.  Monday night big band jazz was a favorite, for years, on the Vanguard stage.  This time, the swinging ensemble is in residency for a week.   The Village Vanguard.    (212) 255-4037.

– Feb. 14 – 17. )Thurs. – Sun.)  Rachelle Ferrell. With a remarkable vocal range and a simmering, blues-driven style, Ferrell knows how to apply it all to her intriguing jazz interpretations.  The Blue Note.    (212) 475-8592.


Eliane Elias

Eliane Elias

– Feb. 17. (Sun.)  Eliane Elias, Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera.  A world class jazz trio, with Elias’ imaginative piano lines backed by the dynamic rhythm of bassist Johnson and drummer LaBarbera.  Ronnie Scott’s.   +44 (0)20 7439 0747.


– Feb. 17. (Sun.)  Cedar Walton Trio.  Pianist Walton, everyone’s favorite rhythm section player, steps out in front, backed by bassist David Williams and drummer Willie Jones III.  A-Trane.  030/313 25 50.


– Feb. 13 – 16. (Wed. – Sat.)  Nicola Conte and Till Bronner.  Versatile Italian guitarist Conte teams up with the equally eclectic German trumpeter Bronner.  The Tokyo Blue Note.     03-5485 0088.

Steve Tyrell photo by Bob Barry

Denise Donatelli and Sue Raney photos by Faith Frenz.

Here, There & Everywhere: The 2013 Jazz Grammy Awards

February 11, 2013

By Don Heckman

The 55th annual Grammy Awards are now history.  But not exactly history-making, especially in the Jazz categories.  It’s hard to imagine anyone being surprised by most of the results.  Or, in fact, by most of nominations.

That’s not to demean, in any way, the work of the jazz artists who did receive Grammy statuettes yesterday.  The list of winners includes Chick Corea and Gary Burton, Esperanza Spalding, Pat Metheny, Arturo Sandoval and the late Clare Fischer’s Latin Jazz Big Band, in the five Jazz categories; and Chick Corea, the late Gil Evans and Spalding and Thara Memory in the Composing and Arranging categories, which have become virtual adjuncts to the Jazz listings.  One could never dispute their skill, artistry or worthiness as winners.

On the upside, it’s good to see the Latin Jazz Category returned to the line-up this year.  But the overall process itself is still uneven, to say the least.  Start with the first category, “Best Improvised Solo.”  What in the world are the standards a voter should use to make choices here?  Improvisation, by definition, is improvised.  How does one determine which spontaneous musical invention is “Best”?

“The Best Jazz Vocal Album” category mixes male and female singers in the same group.  Aside from the reduced number of possible nominees that can be chosen in a gender non-specific category, is it really fair or logical to ask voters to make comparisons between, say, Esperanza Spalding and Al Jarreau?

“The Best Instrumental Jazz Album” is a fairly straight-forward category.  But there are a pair of Chick Corea nominations in this group (especially since he also has two other nominations and a couple of wins in this year’s Awards).  Chick is one of the world’s finest jazz artists, and always worthy of being heard.  But, with the relatively small acknowledgment of jazz in the overall Grammy Award process, shouldn’t the honors be spread around a bit more?

The “Best Large Jazz Album” is hard to figure. It includes only three nominees – especially odd given the surprising numbers of large ensemble jazz recordings that have been arriving lately.

The ”Best Latin Jazz Album” winning choice is a much-deserved acknowledgement of the prolific and musically compelling Latin jazz work of the late Clare Fischer.  And it is done so amid a gifted group of artists reaching across the wide territory of Latin jazz.

Finally, the Best Instrumental Composition, Best Instrumental Arrangement, and Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) categories can all be praised for the high quality of the nominations, all much deserved.  And it’s especially rewarding to see the honoring of the late master arranger Gil Evans – with nominations and a win – for selections from the Centennial album, a collection of previously unrecorded Evans compositions and arrangements.

Last year I signed off on my Grammy comments by underscoring the fact that every jazz player –like every other musical artist – has to be delighted to receive a gold statuette.  The same applies this year, and every year.  But once again the significance of the Grammys to jazz, and the Awards’ commitment to truly honoring one of America’s greatest cultural contributions, continues to diminish.  Jazz deserves better care.

Here are the Nominees and the Award Winners:





”Hot House”  (Track from  Hot House Concord Jazz)




“Cross Roads” (Track from Spirit Fiction Blue Note)


“Alice in Wonderland” (Track from Further Explorations Concord Jazz)


“J.Mac” (Track from Seeds From the Underground Mack Avenue Records)


“Ode” (From Ode Nonesuch)

 * * * * * * * * * *




Radio Music Society (Heads Up International)





Soul Shadows (Savant Records)


1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project Concord Jazz)

–  AL JARREAU  (and the Metropole Orkest)

Live (Concord)


The Book of Chet (Sunnyside Records)

 * * * * * * * * * *




Unity Band (Nonesuch)




Further Explorations (Concord Jazz)


Hot House (Concord Jazz


Seeds From the Underground (Mack Avenue Records)


Blue Moon (Jazz Village)

* * * * * * * * * *




Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You) (Concord Jazz)





Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans (ArtistShare)


For The Moment (MCG Jazz)

 * * * * * * * * * *





Ritmo! (Clare Fischer Productions/Clavo Records)




Flamenco Sketches (Blue Note)


Multiverse (Jazzheads)


Duos III (Sunnyside Records)


New Cuban Express (Mavo Records)

* * * * * * * * * *





“Mozart Goes Dancing” (from Hothouse, Concord Jazz)




“December Dream” (from Esprit De Four Heads Up International.)


“Music of Ansel Adams: America” with the Temple University Symphony Orchestra (BCM&D Records)


Overture, Waltz and Rondo” with the Temple University Symphony Orchestra (BCM&D Records)


“Without A Paddle” (from High On You Bosco Records)

 * * * * * * * * * *



***WINNER: GIL EVANS (Gil Evans Project)

“How About You” (from Centennial:Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans ArtistShare)



– MICHAEL PHILIP MOSSMAN (for the Bobby Sanabria Big Band)

“Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite For Ellington” (from Multiverse Jazzheads)

– BOB MINTZER  (for the Bob Mintzer Big Band)

“Irrequieto” (from For The Moment MCG Jazz)

-WALLY MINKO (for Arturo Sandoval Band)

“A Night In Tunisia (Actually An Entire Weekend!) (from Dear Diz (Every Day I Think Of You Concord Jazz)

– GORDON GOODWIN  (for Arturo Sandoval Band)

“Salt Peanuts (Mani Salado)”  (from Dear Diz (Every Day I Think Of You Concord Jazz)

 * * * * * * * * * *




“City of Roses” (from Radio Music Society Heads Up International)



– NAN SCHWARTZ  (for Whitney Claire Kaufman)

“ Wild Is the Wind”  (from The Greatest Film Scores of Dimitri Tiomkin” LSO Live)

– GIL EVANS  (for Gil Evans Project and Luciana Souza)

“Look To the Rainbow” (from Centennial:Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans ArtistShare)

– SHELLY BERG  (for Lorraine Feather)

“Out There” (from Tales of the Unusual Jazzed Media)

– VINCE MENDOZA  (for Al Jarreau and the Metropole Orkest)

“Spain (I Can Recall)” (from Live  Concord Records)

Live Jazz: A Busy Friday Night at Vitello’s and the Out Take Bistro

February 10, 2013

By Don Heckman

Studio City, CA.  Sometimes a music reviewer just has to do a lot in a single night – often unexpectedly.  As I did on Friday.  Even though it hadn’t actually started out that way.

My schedule for the evening originally included a stop at Vitello’s  to hear the Bill Cunliffe big band in action.  I”d written about the band fairly recently, but with Cunliffe nominated for a Grammy in today’s 2013 Awards (after winning a statuette in the 2012 Grammys), it seemed a good time to give another listen to his richly textured big band writing.  Add that the fact that he’d promised to include more selections from his jazz interpretation of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and it was a performance that clearly offered some fascinating musical attractions.

The most gripping big band arrangements and compositions are usually well crafted combinations of inspired writing and inventive soloing.  And Cunliffe’s composing and arranging have always blended those qualities into irresistibly appealing musical banquets, enhanced by the playing of a world class assemblage of Southland players.

The Bill Cunliffe Big Band

The Bill Cunliffe Big Band

On this night, as always, the Cunliffe band was overflowing with fine artists.  All deserve mention for their ensemble and solo playing.  But I have to highlight the especially impressive work of Bob Sheppard, playing lead alto (and lead soprano) in the saxophone section, the strong tenor saxophone soloing of Rob Lockart and Jeff Ellwood, the always superb trumpeting of Bob Summers and Carl Saunders, the equally sterling trombone work of Bob McChesney and Andy Martin, and the propulsive rhythm section work of drummer Joe LaBarbera, bassist Jonathan Richards and guitarist Larry Koonse.

Bill Cunliffe

Bill Cunliffe

The first part of the set was mostly dedicated to Cunliffe’s originals, which roamed freely across a gamut of styles, delivering them with convincing jazz authenticity.   Next, a pair of vocals added a different perspective: first, Dawn Bishop soaring through “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”; next, April Williams – who, as Vitello’s jazz producer, has transformed the club into a major jazz venue – sang a delightfully evocative version of “You Can Always Count On Me” from the musical City of Angels.  Listening to her, one couldn’t help but wish that she would make more singing appearances in the room, especially with the musical theatre material she does so well.

There was also an unexpected, but welcome performance by a guest artist – trombonist/composer Chris Brubeck.  Nominated (with his late father, Dave Brubeck) for a Grammy in the same category as Cunliffe, Chris was invited to share the stage the day before the Awards.  Chris responded with a warmly ingratiating trombone solo on the lovely ballad written by his father and mother, “In Your Own Sweet Way.”

The Cunliffe Band’s set closed with his re-imagining of the Bach Goldberg Variations, which he has re-titled The Goldberg Contraption.  But it was far more than a “Contraption” – more like a smoothly functioning Swiss watch, with Cunliffe’s transformation of Bach’s flowing harmonies and shifting counterpoint into an utterly believable jazz framework.

And there was more on the Vitello’s agenda before we could leave.  When the Cunliffe Band set concluded in the upstairs room, more jazz sounds were heard downstairs, where pianist John Campbell was playing for late diners and bar-hoppers in the club’s just-added musical setting, “Downstairs Piano Nights.”  No one interprets the Great American Songbook with more imaginative readings than Campbell.  And, even in a room filled with chatting listeners, he easily managed the demanding task of entertaining his audience, while approaching each song with fascinating creativity.

Cat Conner

Cat Conner

But we had another stop to make before our evening was over.  Leaving Vitello’s, heading straight down Tujunga to a right on Ventura Blvd., we quickly arrived for the last few tunes at the Out Take Bistro.    It’s a Friday night gig usually featuring “Cat & Cip” — the vocals of Cat Conner and the saxophone and clarinet of Gene “Cip” Cipriano.

On this night, however, they were joined by a stellar array of players in a virtual jam session format.  The group included trombonist Dick Nash and guitarist John Chiodini (frequent partners of Cat and Cip), as well as clarinetist Alex Budman, soprano saxophonist John Altman and trumpeter Brian Swartz.

Gene Cipriano and John Chiodini

Gene Cipriano and John Chiodini


We arrived just in time for an all-join-in jam on “Take the A Train” allowing plenty of space for the talented crew to stretch out.  And the final wrap up reached out to feature Cat’s warm, engaging vocal in a jaunty song reaching back more than a hundred years – “Hello, Ma Baby.” It was the perfect ending to a musical evening embracing everything from big band jazz and the music of J.S. Bach to the Great American Songbook, ragtime, and beyond.

* * * * * * * *

Photos by Faith Frenz.


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