By Don Heckman
What a great way to spend a birthday. Hearing music at Vitello’s, and digging into the restaurant’s tasty Italian cuisine, is always a worthwhile plan, birthday or not. But Wednesday in fact was my birthday. And the combination of Vitello’s warm and friendly environment and the always engaging music of Cat & Cip made an irresistible choice for music, dinner and a celebration.
The moment that the band arrived on stage to set the holiday mood with a briskly swinging “Jingle Bells” it was apparent that I was going to have the delightful birthday present of an evening of music by Cat, Cip and their stellar players: pianist Tom Ranier, guitarist John Chiodini, bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Joe La Barbera, with guest appearances by trombonists Dick Nash and Scott Whitfield, and drummer Colin Bailey.
As that wasn’t enough, the incomparable soul jazz singer/pianist Les McCann was also in the audience. And, in one memorable performance of “Merry Christmas Baby,” sung with the right touch of stylishness by Cat, McCann added a briskly swinging set of scat choruses. Despite his health problems, McCann is still a captivating performer. It’s been more than a year since he performed superbly with Lee Hartley and the Eric Reed Trio at Vitello’s. And his brief musical interaction with Cat triggered the desire to hear him once again, in a full set of tunes.
There was much more, as well, all of it celebrating the holidays with an irresistible combination of musical enthusiasm.
Among the many high points:
Start with Cat Conner’s warm-toned, richly expressive interpretations of everything she sang, from “I’d Like You For Christmas” to “What A Little Moonlight Can Do.”
In another duo-exchange, trombonists Nash and Whitfield brought a taste of Kai Winding & J.J. Johnson to “”Let It Snow” and “Georgia on My Mind.”
Pianist Rainier, a versatile jazz artist who is an equally fine woodwind player, switched to clarinet on “Heart and Soul,” and dipped into “After You’ve Gone” via a swinging exchange of solos with Cip.
Cat’s partner, Gene Cipriano, played tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass oboe with marvelous ease and imagination. And when he wasn’t demonstrating his instrumental skills he was delighting the audience with hilarious musicians’ tales.
Guitarist Chiodini, as always, was superb on all musical levels, writing most of the arrangements and combining his always imaginative soloing with his solid rhythm selection contributions.
And I can’t omit one of the evening’s more personal notes, when Cat, Cip and their players dug into a jazz-driven version of “Happy Birthday” at which time a Vitello’s waiter arrived at our table with a candle-lit birthday cake. when it was presented to me with a request to extinguish the candles with a birthday wish, I managed to blow them all out in one fell swoop. (Aided by my ancient history as a saxophonist.)
So call it a night (and a birthday) to remember. And I will remember it, with recollections of a high spirited, holiday night of music, offered with affectionate musicality by some of the Southland’s finest players. The sort of night that all jazz fans should have the good fortune to experience on at least one of their birthdays.
Photos by Faith Frenz.