Here, There & Everywhere: April Williams Resigns from Vitello’s

January 19, 2014

By Don Heckman

Jazz clubs come and go in most major cities. Los Angeles is no exception. The Jazz Bakery lost its home in Culver City in 2009. Charlie O’s in Van Nuys was shuttered in 2011. Both were vital homes for L.A.’s finest jazz artists and valuable destinations for jazz fans.

April Williams

April Williams

This month, Upstairs at Vitello’s, another jazz room, is not closing down. But it is apparently changing its management and its scheduling.  And April Williams, who has been primarily responsible for establishing Upstairs at Vitello’s as a major Los Angeles Jazz venue, is moving on.  To explain her decision, Williams has written a letter to the musicians, the fans and the friends who will all be impacted by her departure from Vitello’s.

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Here’s her letter:

Dear Beloved Musicians and Friends

Happy New Year! I wish you good health, happiness and prosperity. I am so grateful for all the great performances, your friendship and the good times we have shared together.

With the New Year there are endings and new beginnings. I am very excited about my plans for 2014.  However, as excited as I am about new projects in the works, it is with a heavy heart that I must tell you that, due to ongoing artistic differences with the management, I will be terminating my residency at Vitello’s as of February 1, 2014. I thank Vitello’s for the opportunities they extended to me when I knocked on their door in 2009 when the world was economically crashing down. I told them I had a vision that I could create a Jazz Night one day a week..and they gave me that opportunity.

February 2014 is the five-year anniversary of my residency at Vitello’s. We have all done so much uniting and growing the communities involvement with live music. Together we have proven that the music community is a vital entity that survives through the worst economic years of the country. In addition to the audiences we attracted to Vitello’s, I ran and continue to run 5 years of composers’ Study groups, we raised $17k for tsunami relief in Japan, we celebrated Grammy Nominees and winners, Big Bands, Young Artists and night after night the magic of music.

I financed the first 9 months personally, bought the equipment and as the power of the music expanded, Vitello’s joined in. I created over 20,000 jobs for musicians in the last five years. I am proud of what we have achieved together. What we’ve learned in the years at Vitello’s is that there is a dedicated Los Angeles audience for the finest jazz of every style and genre. And my new plans will open the doors to venues eager to provide those audiences with the world-class music they’re eager to hear.

I gratefully thank all of you for your selfless sharing of yourselves and your music. And I thank you, too, for your constant support and extraordinary performances over the last five years. Your playing and singing set the creative bar high. And you always embraced me and delivered on your musical promises. In return, I did the very best I could to give you all the services you deserve to properly honor your music.

The audiences I thank as well. You are musical forces unto yourselves. Composed of musicians, aficionados, writers, photographers, sound teams, and fans, students and educators, you all came forward to preserve the music culture of Los Angeles.

It has been a fantastic run. I am so grateful to have worked alongside the best musicians in the world. Musician Friends, that is, who have all become my closest and dearest associates.

I look forward to working together again with all of you in the near future.

Stay tuned. More news coming shortly.

And remember…the difference between noise and music is the amount of space between the notes.

Love and peace,

April Williams

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When he heard about Williams’ plans to move on from Vitello’s, Joe LaBarbera, one of the Southland’s finest, busiest players, wrote a response to Williams’ letter with his own commentary about her departure from the room. 

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Here’s Joe’s message:

Dear April,

Joe LaBarbera

Joe LaBarbera

5 years ago you took a vacant space in a mediocre Italian restaurant and magically transformed it into a real jazz club. Starting with just one night a week, the reputation of the club grew along with the roster of artists who were happy to play there, local at first and eventually from coast to coast. You improved every aspect of that room to make it THE place to play in Los Angeles.

It’s been true of every great club I have known over the years that the only reason it is successful is because the person in charge loves the music. Max Gordon at the Village Vanguard, Sonny Canterino at the Half Note, Shelly Manne and Rudy Underwieser at the Manne Hole, Mike and Randy Brecker at 7th Ave. These are just a few examples.

Thank you, April for a great run and I look forward to working together in the future.


Joe LaBarbera 

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As Joe LaBarbera’s letter makes abundantly clear, April Williams has had a significant impact upon both the quantity and the quality of jazz in Los Angeles.  And she will continue to play a leading role in the jazz and the music communities that have benefited so much from her presence. As April’s letter clearly indicates: Stay tuned for her future plans.

Photos by Faith Frenz.

Live Jazz: The Bill Cunliffe Big Band and Quartet with Harry Allen at Vitello’s

December 10, 2013

By Don Heckman

Bill Cunliffe’s accomplishments are many. Not only is he a world class jazz pianist, composer and arranger. He’s also acknowledged for his many skills by his musical compatriots. He’s been honored with a Grammy Award, a Down Beat Award, multiple Grammy nominations, and several Emmy nominations. Add to that a winner’s award from the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano competition.

Bill Cunliffe

Bill Cunliffe

It’s unlikely that either Cunliffe or his full house audience at Vitello’s Saturday night were giving much thought to his many attainments. The focus on this engaging evening of music was on the here and now of Cunliffe’s multiple skills, as he opened the performance with his sterling quartet and topped off the evening with a big band full of the Southland’s finest players digging into his rich textured, briskly swinging music for large jazz ensemble.

The Bill Cunliffe Big Band

The Bill Cunliffe Big Band

The performance was enhanced by the presence of tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, one of the rare contemporary masters of traditional and swing style improvising. Working with Cunliffe’s quartet in a program of tunes ranging from standards (“But Not For Me”) to Christmas tunes (“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”), his soloing flowed with the captivating lyricism of such predecessors as Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.

Harry Allen

Harry Allen

Like them, Allen’s playing recalled the old admonition that jazz improvisers, when playing standards and ballads, should also be familiar with the words of the songs. Each melody he played came to life with the intimate, story-telling connectivity of a jazz vocalist.

Allen also soloed brilliantly with Cunliffe’s big band, as well, playing with such appealing musicality that the band’s five saxophonists – whenever they had a rest – were completely focused on his warm, inventive improvising.

But the band, playing Cunliffe’s ever-fascinating compositions and arrangements, also offered their own superb playing. The charts, which included selections from a soon to be released Cunliffe big band recording, were definitive displays of his far-reaching creative imagination. The high points included the bossa nova classic, “The Girl From Ipanema, a hard-driving Cunliffe original – titled “Bonecrusher” – from his Latin CD, and a glorious take on “’Round Midnight” featuring Allen at his finest. Topping off the big band set, guest artist Grammy-winning composer/arranger Nan Schwartz conducted her own briskly swinging arrangement of “Sunny Side of the Street,” and dedicated it to her mother, a former Swing era big band singer.

Memorable musical nights at Vitello’s are not unusual. And this one was no exception. How could it be, with Cunliffe in the command position, aided by the stellar work of Allen, the superbly crafted arranging of Schwartz, and – above all – the splendid playing of the gifted musicians, including the Southland’s finest, in the Cunliffe band.

So give thanks to April Williams, Vitello’s music manager, for opening the door for Cunliffe, his music, his guests and his players. Let’s hope they return again, soon.

Photo Review: Lyn Stanley at Vitello’s

December 9, 2013

Photos by Bob Barry and Faith Frenz

Studio City, CA. Singer Lyn Stanley’s first creative expression was ballroom dancing. And she did it so well that she won three events and two national titles in ballroom competitions in 2010. But her affection for, and expertise in dancing were always intimately connected to her equally passionate attraction to music in general and singing in particular.

As she began her singing career, strongly motivated by the music that had always been present in her family, Lyn was constantly drawn to the linkages between music and dance. And when she met the legendary jazz pianist and accompanist Paul Smith – whose credits reach from Ella Fitzgerald to Mel Torme — his guidance led her on the path to the creative vocal career she had been seeking. The release of her first album, Lost In Romance, announced the arrival of an intriguing new musical talent.

Lyn’s performance at Vitello’s last Friday was a stirring display of her fascination with song and dance. Further enhancing the evening, April Williams, Vitello’s musical manager, arranged for the installation of a wooden tile floor to encourage dancing, as Lyn featured many of the songs from her new album. All of which motivated us to present a photo review of this impressive new vocalist in action, backed by the stellar band of pianist Bill Cantos, bassist Kevin Axt, guitarist Grant Geissman, saxophonist Rickey Woodard, drummer Kendall Kay and music director Steve Rawlins.

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“Little Drummer Boy”

“I Just Want To Make Love To You”

“One For My Baby” with Bill Cantos and Kevin Axt

. “My Foolish Heart”

“What Am I Gonna Do With A Bad Boy Like You” with Kevin Axt

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First, third and fourth photos by Bob Barry.  Second and fifth photos by Faith Frenz.

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.

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Photos by Faith Frenz.

Here, There and Everywhere: Halloween Jam with Bob Sheppard and Friends

November 2, 2012

By Don Heckman

I can never recall trick or treating having much connection with jazz.  So when Vitello’s announced a “Halloween Costume Party and Jam” featuring saxophonist Bob Sheppard with a stellar band, it sounded like the potential for an unusual and entertaining evening.

As it was.  Sheppard’s band included guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Dave Robaire and drummer Charles Ruggiero.  And the word was out that some sitting in would be taking place, as well.  Add to that the  audience costumes that arrived over the course of the evening, and the atmosphere of communal jazz sharing that made the performance feel like a long musical party among friends.

It’s worth noting, too, that the Halloween costuming, so to speak, wasn’t limited to the colorful members of the audience.  Several times during the evening, Sheppard and Koonse added their own offbeat appearances, proudly wearing the wigs of ‘60s hippydom.

Larry Koonse, Dave Robaire and Bob Sheppard

The opening set featured the front line of Sheppard and Koonse at their best.  Always among the first-call choices on their instruments, both players are best heard in a wide open setting like this one, stretching out on some standards and a jazz classic or two, interacting spontaneously in a relaxed environment.

Whether playing tenor or soprano, Sheppard is always adventurous, applying his considerable technique to the expression of his equally imaginative soloing.  And so, too, is Koonse, whose subtle accompaniment touches produce virtually instantaneous arrangements, countered by his own inventive solo efforts.

Backing Sheppard and Koonse, the rhythm team of Robaire and Ruggiero were flawless, matching a propulsive sense of swing with an equally supportive framework of rhythm and timbre.

Billy Childs

As the evening progressed, other players joined the Halloween Jam.  Among them, there were some especially compelling contributions from the ever-impressive pianists Billy Childs and John Beasley.

Call it a Halloween full of musical treats, without the distraction of a single trick. And credit April Williams, Vitello’s jazz impresario, with yet another imaginative musical evening.  Be sure to check her November Vitello’s calendar for a month-long schedule of equally appealing jazz events.

Photos by Faith Frenz

Live Jazz: April Williams with Alan Pasqua, Bob Sheppard, Darek Oles and Peter Erskine at Vitello’s.

July 23, 2012

By Don Heckman

April Williams spends a lot of nights – and a few afternoons, too – at Vitello’s Restaurant in Studio City.  Under her guidance, Upstairs at Vitello’s has become one of L.A.’s best new jazz venues.

She was there on Saturday night, as well.  But not for her usual routine of cruising the room to make sure everything’s working the way it should, while occasionally darting backstage to be certain that the performers are ready to go with everything they need.

That’s not to say that she didn’t do a few of those chores on Saturday, too.  But her real focus was with the evening’s performers, who included pianist Alan Pasqua, saxophonist Bob Sheppard, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Peter Erskine.

Along with the featured singer: April Williams.

April Williams with Alan Pasqua and Bob Sheppard

That’s right, April took a break from booking and supervising the music to have a little fun with something she loves to do: sing.  She does so with a substantial background in musical theatre, and a weekly exposure to some of the Southland’s finest vocal artists in action.

But what quickly became apparent was the fact that April has a unique style of her own, based upon a quest to illuminate the story within every song she sings.

After her stellar musicians romped through a jaunty rendering of “How Much Do I Love You?” April began her set with an atmospheric take on “Love For Sale.” Followed by a sparkling arrangement of “Baubles, Bangles and Beads.”

April Williams

She sang “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” in harmonized phrasing with Sheppard’s soprano saxophone – accomplishing the demanding task while capturing the song’s tricky lyrics.  Her jazz phrasing was front and center in the classic “Honeysuckle Rose,” which also featured a stunning, full-chorus solo from Erskine.

Another jazz classic, “Angel Eyes,” was on shakier ground.  But April more than made up for it with a delightfully raucous “Don Juan” from the musical Smokey Joe’s Café.  In the mood for more humor, she followed with a whimsical take on Dave Frishberg’s “Peel Me A Grape.”

Still displaying her versatility, she then sang a warm and intimate “We’ll Be Togrther Again,” her musical narrative enhanced by a lovely solo from bassist Oles.  And she wrapped up her far-ranging set of songs with a pair of classic Jobim bossa novas: “Sad” (“Triste”) and “No More Blues” (“Chega De Saudade).  Neither song has an English translation as touching as the original Portuguese.  But to April’s credit, she delivered the English version of both with convincing believability.

Tonight, April Williams will no doubt be back at her task of keeping  Upstairs at Vitello’s jazz programming alive and cooking.  And she can be pleased that on Saturday night, she accomplished that task superbly – not just as a music room manager, but as a featured artist, and a good one. Let’s hope she steps on stage again, and soon.

Performance photo by Bob Barry.

Picks of the Week: July 18 – 22

July 18, 2012

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

– July 18. (Wed.) The  Chris Walden Big Band with special guest Tierney Sutton. Walden takes a break from his busy schedule of studio arranging and composing to lead his always dynamic big band.  And it will be especially fascinating to hear the versatile Ms. Sutton singing in a setting very different – but no doubt equally compelling — from that of her own band.  Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

John Pizzarelli

– July 18 – 21. (Wed. – Sat.)  John Pizzarelli Quartet.  He plays the guitar, he sings, he’s as witty and humorous as a stand-up comic.  And he does it all with warm amiability.  If all that isn’t enough, check out his ear-grabbing scatting in unison with his fast-fingered guitar soloing.  Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

– July 19. (Thurs.)  Joshua Bell and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  The gifted violinist performs the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and joins up with Edgar Meyer to perform the bassists Double Concerto for Violin and Double Bass. The Philharmonic, under Ludovic Morlot, also plays Weber’s Der Freischutz and Oberon overtures. The Hollywood Bowl.    (323) 850-2000.

– July 19. (Thurs.) Nick Mancini.  Vibes artist Mancini, one of L.A.’s busiest studio players, takes a break to showcase his own Mancini Collective.  And what better way to hear first rate  jazz than in Descanso Gardens.  Bring a blanket, picnic food and friends for a laid-back, relaxed musical evening.  Seating on a first come basis.  Descanso Gardens.  (818) 949-4200.

– July 19. (Thurs.)  Judi Silvano.  One never knows what to expect from singer/composer Silvano other than the certainty that she will offer an evening of music that constantly intrigues and entertains.  She’ll be working with pianist Theo Saunders, bassist Pat Senatore and drummer Kendall Kay. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.     (310) 474-9400.

– July 20. (Fri.)  The Josh Nelson Group. Pianist Nelson is in the vanguard of the Southland’s most gifted young jazz artists, releasing  his first recording at 19.  This time out he’s stretching the envelope in the company of guitarist Larry Koonse, trumpeter John Daversa and live sci-fi video art.  The Blue Whale.     (213) 620-0908.

Smokey Robinson

– July 20 & 21. (Fri. & Sat.)  Smokey Robinson.  Blessed with superb songwriting skills and one of the most warm and soothing voices in all of pop music, it’s no wonder Robinson has long been called the King of Motown. The Hollywood Bowl.    (323) 850-2000.

– July 21. (Sat.)  The Gift: the stellar assemblage of pianist Alan Pasqua, saxophonist Bob Sheppard, drummer Peter Erskine and bassist Darek Oles offer the gift of their world class accompaniment as a belated birthday present to singer April Williams, in the room she has established as one of L.A.’s best jazz venues.  Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

– July 21. (Sat.)  The Pasadena POPS with Marvin Hamlisch and Michael Feinstein.  Conductor Hamlisch and the POPS open the summer season with a program featuring the master of the Great American Songbook.  The Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden.  The Pasadena Symphony and Pops.   (626) 793-7172.

San Francisco

Leo Kottke

– July 22. (Sun.)  Leo Kottke.  Veteran guitarist Kottke is an entertaining artist, illuminating his vocals with humorous monologues.  But it is his impressive, finger-picking guitar playing that is the centerpiece of his performances.  Yoshi’s Oakland.   (510) 238-9200.

New York

– July 17 – 22. (Tues. – Sun.)  Igor Butman & the Moscow State Jazz Orchestra.  Saxophonist/bandleader Butman is the Wynton Marsalis of Russia, using his connections with the power elite to support the growing presence of jazz in his country.  His Orchestra includes some of Russia’s finest players. Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola.    (212) 258-9800.

– July 18. (Wed.)  A CIM Faculty Concert.  Four cutting edge improvisational artists from the Center for Improvisational Music — pianist Andy Milne, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tom Rainey – will perform works by all members of the group.  The Cornelia St. Café.   (212) 989-9319.

– July 19. (Thurs.)  An Enchanted Evening: The Songs of Richard Rodgers. “Enchanted” is the right word to describe an evening of Rodgers performed by the ensemble of Bill Charlap, piano / Barbara Carroll, piano & vocals / Sachal Vasandani, vocals / Warren Vaché, cornet /Jon Gordon, alto sax / John Allred, trombone / Jay Leonhart, bass / Sean Smith, bass / Tim Horner, drums.  The 92nd St. Y.   (212) 415-5500.


Stanley Clarke

– July 20 & 21.  (Fri. &.  Sat.)  The Stanley Clarke/Stewart Copeland Band.  A pair of world class jazz individualists – bassist Clarke and drummer Copeland – combine their unique visions into an irresistible blend of jazz, fusion and rock with an occasional tinge of classical.  They’re joined by keyboardist Ruslan Sirota and guitarist Brady Cohen.    Ronnie Scott’s.


– July 21. (Sat.)  The Christian Scott Quintet. Trumpeter Scott has been a vital new figure on the jazz scene since his first album, Rewind That, was released in 2006.  He’ll no doubt feature pieces from his latest album, Christian aTunde Adjua. arrival in   New Morning.    01 45 23 51 41.


– July 21. (Sat.) Esperanza Spalding. Winner of the Best New Artist award in the 2011 Grammys, bassist/singer Spalding has been crossing genres ever since.  She has modeled her career, she says, on those of Madonna and Ornette Colema.  Blue Note Milan.


Dionne Warwick

– July 19 – 21. (Thurs. – Sat.)  Dionne Warwick. Iconic pop singer Warwick was one of the big hit-makers of the rock era.  Best known for association with songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David, she is a five-time Grammy winner (plus seven other nominations). And she’s still going strong. Blue Note Tokyo.   03.5485.0088.


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