By Don Heckman
Monday night was a great night for jazz at Typhoon. As it often is in the open spaces of this warm and amiable club on the fringe of Santa Monica Airport. I’d often intended to show up for one of the room’s frequent Monday night big band programs but never quite got around to it.
Not until last Monday night, that is, when my good friend Norton Wright, who has done some reviewing for iRoM (Click here), convinced me that I should write about the Paul McDonald Big Band in performance at Typhoon.
I was further convinced when I saw that the program would also include a set by the incomparable Les McCann and his frequent companion, singer Lee Hartley. The deal was locked when Norton and his wife Suzy picked us up and did all the driving.
An up front table (maybe 5 or 6 feet from the saxophones in the McDonald Band), provided plenty of good angles for Faith’s camera work. Add to that the feeling of nostalgia I experienced, so close to the saxophone section. Inevitably, it called up memories of the years I spent, from late teens to my early twenties, playing in similar (if not nearly as adept) saxophone sections.
But the musical pleasures of the McDonald Band reached way beyond nostalgia, from note one to the final coda. Whether they were generating roaring, full ensemble shouts, articulate exchanges of riffs between sections, or featuring hard swinging, inventive individual soloing.
Big band nights are not hard to find in Los Angeles, usually featuring a line up of prime players – their presence and their skills reflecting the high quality of Southland players – whether well known or not. The McDonald Big Band is no exception. Seated up close it was easy for me to focus on their accuracy, musicianship, ensemble togetherness and collective sense of swing.
The Band’s performance was further enhanced by McDonald’s arrangements, which captivated the best of the ensemble’s qualities. Starting with a full range of colorful charts, McDonald led his players through a set that never stopped filling Typhoon’s wide spread room with all that’s great about big band jazz.
The McDonald Big Band reached its peak with a gripping medley of music from the musical West Side Story arranged with meticulous care by McDonald. It was the musical high point of an evening with many memorable high points. At its best, McDonald’s West Side Story arrangement was an impressive example of the unlimited potential of big band jazz arrangements in the hands of writers such as MacDonald, Bill Holman, Johnny Mandel and many others. I’ve always felt that the big jazz band was the American symphony orchestra of the 20th and 2st century, an instrumentation that continues to possess limitless creative potential, when placed in the right hands.
The McDonald set also dedicated a part of the program to a celebration of Martin Luther King Day. Singer Jay Jackson led the way, joining the McDonald players with a swinging mixture of rhythm and song. Jackson’s versatility was present in a full selection of tunes, from blues to ballads. In some of the best moments in the set, he came together with the band in dynamic passages vividly reminiscent of Joe Williams with the Basie band.
And the evening’s performance ended, perfectly, with a brief set from Les McCann and singer Lee Hartley. McCann sang from a wheel chair, but there was no reduction in his ability to play a keyboard or sing a song, And his last tune, inevitably, was his classic “Compared To What.” Partnering with Hartley and her gorgeous, soaring voice, he easily persuaded the audience to join in the repetitions of the song’s familiar chorus.
Les McCann sings with Lee Hartley and the Paul McDonald Big Band
It was the perfect ending for a memorable night of music. So memorable that we’ll soon be making many return visits to Typhoon, with its amiable vibe, its Island cuisine and its great jazz.