Live Jazz: The Johnny Mandel Big Band

By Don Heckman

Johnny Mandel was at Vitello’s again Saturday night, leading a big band at the venue for the third time in a year.  Despite the familiarity of the music – or, perhaps, because of it — one couldn’t ask for better evidence of the long term quality of his achievements, as a composer, an arranger and a songwriter.

As in the previous appearances, the program was largely divided into two sets, with the first including most of the best-known Mandel classics, the second exploring some of his less familiar works.  In both sets, the music was utterly compelling, performed in dynamic fashion by an enthusiastic assemblage of Los Angeles’ finest players.

Johnny Mandel
Johnny Mandel

At 87, leading the musicians from behind a music stand positioned in front of the saxophone section, Mandel touched upon the many high points of his extraordinary career.  They came in engaging fashion, one memorable melody after another: “The Shadow of Your Smile,” played lyrically by trumpeter Carl Saunders; the theme music from “I Want To Live,” featuring the baritone saxophone of Bob Efford; the lovely film song, “Emily”; “Suicide is Painless” (the theme song from “M*A*S*H”).

Add to that Mandel’s fiery flag waver, “Not Really the Blues,” originally written for the Woody Herman Band, a quirky chart for the Artie Shaw Band inspired by the Crazy Cat cartoon show, and an equally hard swinging arrangement of “Centerpiece.”  And let’s not forget Mandel’s gift for writing classic song melodies: including a gorgeous arrangement of his “Close Enough For Love, written with Paul Williams, performed here with saxophonist Steve Wilkerson in the solo role; and an equally lyrical “Where Do You Start,” composed with the lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

Looking back over my previous reviews of the Mandel big band appearances at Vitello’s, I can see the potential for redundancy in my comments.  But there was no redundancy in the music.  Mandel’s originals, along with his arrangements, sound fresh and new each time they’re played.  And the pleasures of hearing them were aided by a stellar array of world class musicians.

Johnny Mandel leads his band

I won’t make a simple list of them.  But, in addition to those I’ve already mentioned, I can’t overlook the fine solo and section efforts of trumpeters Ron Stout, Bob Summers and Adolfo Acosta, trombonists Ira Nepus, Scott Whitfield, Phil Teele and Ryan Porter, and the extraordinarily versatile offerings of saxophonists/flutists/clarinetists Carol Chaikin, Keith Fiddmont and Ricky Woodard.  And, of course, the propulsive foundation provided by pianist John Campbell, guitarist John Chiodini, bassist Chuck Berghofer and drummer Zach Albetta (playing the Mandel book for the first time).

So, as it turned out, three performances in a year were not too many. Not for Mandel’s music, which is always a delight to experience in bold, living colors.  Here’s looking forward to his next Vitello’s appearance with his Big Band – hopefully as a celebration of Johnny Mandel’s 88th birthday in November, along with the publication of his biography, which is reportedly in the works.

Photos by Faith Frenz.

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