By Norton Wright
Santa Monica, CA. One of the unique experiences on today’s jazz scene is “Big Band Night” at Typhoon Restaurant at Santa Monica Airport in Los Angeles. On Memorial Day evening listeners are ready to experience a veritable bacchanal as the band on stage is Paul McDonald’s big, powerhouse, 17-piece orchestra.
The band hits at 8 p.m. but you should get to the Typhoon as early as 6p.m., not just for the scenic view of the flight line’s airplanes from the restaurant’s top floor, because it is you who are about to fly. The excitement is palpable – and wow, does it ever grow!
McDonald is already there in the working togs of shorts and a t-shirt setting up the band’s music stands, laying out the charts for each band member, positioning eleven microphones with their maze of cables leading to the sound mixing board of Typhoon’s indefatigable audio engineer, Toro. These two gents have worked together before and move deftly through the all-important sound check under the watchful eye of Typhoon’s owner, Brian Vidor.
Vidor has run this massive, jazz room for twenty-five years, his crowd of regulars is already piling in to the bar and the restaurant’s thirty tables. The conversation level begins to boom! Lots of gleeful greetings, talk of jazz, what’s going to happen tonight? You get the feeling that this jazz ritual has been going on forever. Evocations of Shelley’s Manne-Hole, Donte’s, The Lighthouse, maybe even Toulouse Lautrec’s Bal Taberin. Lautrec always surprised, so like him, what has McDonald got up his sleeve tonight?
7p.m. – one hour to show time, but already the band members are arriving. They’re old friends, gathering early, clearly enjoying one another’s company. Adjusting the lights on their music stands, organizing their charts, unpacking their instruments, their pace leisurely like cool gunslingers again prepping for a night at the O.K. Corral.
7:30 p.m. – Paul McDonald reappears in sartorial splendor, dark suit, necktie, neat handkerchief in his breast pocket. He’s mellow but also keenly attentive to any missed details in readying for the band’s 8pm start. He greets his band members, then moves about the restaurants saying hi to old friends, but he’s regularly checking his wristwatch. This is a genteel producer and showman at work. He sees his band settling into their seats and holds up ten fingers to them. Ten minutes before start time. The crowd is quieting in anticipation. Five fingers to the band, five minutes to go!
8 p.m. – McDonald at his electric piano counts off the up-tempo beat for the opening number – and the band explodes into “This Can’t Be Love”! The sax section puts you away, drummer Steve Pemberton drives the band up and over, and the night flight takes off! Paul Young is 200 pounds of roaring trombone solo, Ron Barrows, super casual in a baseball cap, answers with his own sizzling trumpet solo, and you start to remember that all theses musicians are solo stars in their own right.
The band quickly propels through the applause into the second number, the Cubop standard “Mambo Inn,” and you hear why McDonald has added a second percussionist to the band. MB Gordy’s array of conga drums, bongos, and timbales absolutely crackle with polyrhythmic intensity.
About now you may be thinking that the guys in this band are awesome – but wait till you hear the band’s two lady musicians. There are all kinds of ways of being beautiful, and Barbara Loronga’s trumpet and Lori Stuntz’ trombone are just outrageously gorgeous! Loronga’s soloing throughout the night (deftly using a mute on some numbers) reminds of Lee Morgan’s blazing yet note-perfect virtuosity – and in the night’s most poignant moment, as the classically-trained trombonist Stuntz is soloing through her beautiful take on West Side Story’s “Tonight, Tonight,” the hushed crowd is so moved that from the back of the room some start to reverently sing the lyrics.
In the audience, Susan Watson, one of the original performers in 1958’s production of West Side Story, is so taken by the by the grace of Stuntz solo that she gets outright weepy!
A word about composer/arranger/pianist/bandleader Paul McDonald’s consummate showmanship and his West Side Story medley that closes the first set. In this first hour, you’ve already been treated to the amazing speed of Gary Herbig’s alto and Dean Roubicek’s tenor on every solo they take. (Eric Morones is in the hunt too, joyously jousting with Roubicek as to who’s the fastest sax in the West). Mike Parlett is at home with the entire array of woodwinds from alto sax to flute, and young Caesar Martinez equally impresses, doubling on baritone sax and clarinet.
So adding some of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story score to this hot mix heralds a heart-thumping finale! McDonald kicks it off on electric keyboard with a dazzling solo, Ken Wild switches from acoustic bass to electric bass propelling the band into overdrive. The familiar themes of “I Want To Be In America,” “Maria,” and “Tonight, Tonight” rise up in McDonald’s arrangement joyfully reminding of Bernstein’s jazz heart, — and in the last bars of this West Side piece Tony Bonsera’s trumpet goes stratospheric! What a way to end the first set!
Now what can McDonald do to top this in the upcoming second set? And he’s got the additional challenge that during the intermission the packed crowd is now roaring in conversation. But if Leonard Bernstein was a good choice to end the first set, how about another American musical icon, Aaron Copeland, to start the second set?
And so it is that without any introduction, the band just blasts off the second set with the opening of Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, the four-person trombone section (Young, Stuntz, Duane Benjamin, and Robbie Hioki) sounding the profound gravitas of the fanfare as the trumpet section soars atop, all in a display of brass firepower so awesome that it immediately quiets the reveling crowd. McDonald moves the number into a jazz groove with a keyboard solo evidencing what an exceptionally intense, soloing artist he is, and again MB Gordy’s congas – and tambourine! – add wicked, hard-throbbing grooves to the fanfare. It all would have made Aaron Copeland kvel!
Next, the night would be incomplete without a blues number, and McDonald gets into it at the keyboard with his own composition, “Forget About The Past,” so down that it poses the question, “Why do the blues make listeners so happy?
The crowd has been waiting for Steve Pemberton’s drum solo and he does not disappoint, starting with brushes on snare and cymbals, then letting that soft touch escalate into dynamite drumstick work and kicking off the tune “Seven Steps” with trumpeter Jeff Jarvis burning the joint down with his fast and fiery solo.
So is there another surprise that showman McDonald can call forth in this last set to top off the evening? Yes, and she arrives in the person of the lissome songstress, Marianne Lewis. If you’re not acquainted with Lewis you may wonder how she is going to fare in a big-band context given that her website credits include her choir directing, leading of spiritual, consciousness-raising, empowerment groups, and listing CD’s of her own song compositions sung with gentle jazziness. You may be expecting Mother Teresa — but you are blissed out when Lewis arrives on the bandstand in a sexy, slinky, black-lace evening dress! With three background singers, Jacquelyn A. Brown, Ramon Pratt, and Valerie Chevanaugh Fruge – she launches into “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Something’s Gotta Give” and a jazzy, funky take on Earth Wind & Fire’s “In The Stone.” Clearly Lewis is bringing it tonight, and you’re in for a very good time.
Later after a quick costume change into a short white lace dress, she spots heartthrob singer, Dave Davis, in the audience and gets him to join her on stage for an impromptu and flirtatious duet on “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me.” During the song, Davis fixes on Lewis’s come-hither dance moves and short dress as if hoping for a wardrobe malfunction. Clearly this wolf is appreciating the swan in more ways than one, and the crowd just loves them.
As the evening heads for the finish line, the band and Lewis run through “Stormy Weather,” “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” Sergio Mendes’ “Mas Que Nada” – and by the time the band hits its arrangement of Tower of Power’s song, “A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing,” everyone in the crowd is up and DANCING!
It’s an exuberant finale — and what a memorable way to end a Memorial Day weekend!
P.S. The Paul McDonald Big Band is such a celebration of jazz music , soloing stars, and genuine surprises that this orchestra merits bookings at the likes of the Playboy Jazz Festival, the KJAZZ Radio Summer Benefit Concert, and other major jazz venues.
And L. A.’s Chamber of Commerce, City Council, and Mayor Eric Garcetti should be proud to have the legendary Typhoon Restaurant as “Big-Band Central” in Los Angeles. In just the last month this attractive and spacious location has hosted the jazz orchestras of Emil Richards, Clare Fischer (directed by Brent Fischer), Steve Spiegel, Mark Hix, Tim Davies, Mike Price, and Charles Owens.
For anyone coming to visit our city, of course Disney Philharmonic Hall, the fountains of the California Center, the New Getty Museum, and the like are must-sees. But no visit to Los Angeles is complete without catching Big- Band Night at Brian Vidor’s Typhoon Restaurant so aptly located at Santa Monica Airport where the great American art form, jazz, proudly takes flight every week.
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