Live Jazz: Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at the Valley Performing Arts Center.

March 18, 2014

By Don Heckman

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra have been making regular appearances in the Southland for the past few years. And it’s always a musical delight to hear this stellar assemblage of jazz artists in action. On Sunday night they took the stage at the acoustically accurate environment of the Valley Performing Arts Center, once again reminding us of the great music that exists in the nearly century-old repertoire of big jazz bands.

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis

Marsalis’ carefully planned programming reached from Duke Ellington to Count Basie, while making additional stops at the efforts of Benny Carter, Henry Mancini, Gerald Wilson and Charles Mingus. The results were extraordinary.

I’m tempted to name (and praise) the impressive soloists who stepped into the spotlight. But the fact is that virtually every member of the JLCO displayed world-class improvisational skills. Suffice to say that the combination of extraordinary ensemble playing, blended with superb individual artistry, led by Marsalis’ deep historical overview (which he offered between numbers) of the creative potential of the big jazz band, resulted in an incomparable evening of music.

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

And the thought that kept surfacing throughout the memorable two hour program was the JLCO’s far ranging capacity to remind us of the big bands’ historical role as the symphony orchestra of American music. Evolving over the decades from the ’20s to the present, the big bands have provided one composer/arranger after another with the instrumentation to express musical creativity comparable to the work of European symphonic composers.

In the hands of jazz artists such as Marsalis and the gifted members of the JLCO, performing some of the great, jazz-oriented big band works of the 20th century, the music left little to be desired. Add to that the opportunity to compare the big band works of such iconic composers as Ellington, Mingus, Carter and Wilson, among numerous others.

And the result, in this extraordinary performance, was a musical night to remember – a beautifully articulated, inventively played display of big band jazz at its finest.

A Twist Of Doc: Hank Mobley – The Unsung Hero Of Bop.

February 7, 2014

By Devon Wendell

For tenor sax players, the late ‘50s and early ‘60s were a time for hard blowing, fitting in as many notes as possible within a few bars, and trying to break free from familiar patterns.

Sonny Rollins was the reigning king of articulation and might on tenor sax until Coltrane’s second stay with Miles. Although his was more of a cult-like following at the time, and there were plenty of people who didn’t like what he was playing, Coltrane would change the direction of the instrument forever. Rollins was still loved and began to play even harder and faster as a result of Coltrane’s impact on jazz.

Rollins, Coltrane and Johnny Griffin were considered to be the fastest tenor men in the game. Although these men were genius players and writers, many other fantastic contributors were left in the shadows. It’s always been difficult for music journalists and the media to pay attention to more than a few groundbreaking artists at once.

Hank Mobley

Hank Mobley

One such artist who never seemed to get his fair due during his time was Hank Mobley, who died in 1986 at 55. Mobley’s round tone and nimble, melodic blues based phrasing helped define the entire hard-bop genre.

Not only was Mobley a member of the original Jazz Messengers led by Horace Silver, he recorded and composed some of the most original, hard swinging compositions in the entire history of jazz. He also recorded with the top musicians of the day, both new on the scene like Lee Morgan, Grant Green, and Freddie Hubbard, as well as older legends such as Art Blakey, Art Taylor, and Kenny Dorham.

His two most heralded albums, Soul Station and Roll Call, both recorded in 1960 on Blue Note are among the most sophisticated and thoughtful albums recorded for the label.

The albums consist mostly of Mobley originals. And the most amazing thing about compositions like “Cattin’,” “B For B.B.” (recorded in 1956 with Donald Byrd on The Jazz Message Of Hank Mobley on Savoy Records), or “Take Your Pick” and “The Breakdown,” both from the Roll Call album, is that one can easily hear these as big band arrangements. Which is hard to say about many of Mobley’s contemporaries, especially as the ‘60s drew near. That sense of the blues that swung all night long that Count Basie, Duke Ellington, as well as Monk, and Dizzy kept with them when composing and playing, were present in Mobley’s writing and blowing. And his sound is immediately identifiable.

Someone could blind fold me and play me a Mobley composition that I’ve never heard, covered by an artist that I’ve never heard and I’d know it was his within the first four bars. There’s still something sweet and endearing to Mobley’s “High And Flighty” tone and his big, bright arrangements. I first noticed it on “Hankerin’” from Horace Silver And The Jazz Messengers and Curtain Call (Both on Blue Note) which were given to me by a friend when I was 14.

Leonard Feather may have penned Mobley as “The middleweight champion of the tenor sax,” but I don’t think Feather meant it as a put down. Stan Getz was great and he played softer than Rollins or Coltrane. What’s great about jazz is that there’s room for many styles and sounds. The media may not grab onto it at first or ever, but the musicians and music lovers do. Mobley could and did play hard throughout different periods of his career. Check out his bold, angular lines on Freddie Hubbard’s Goin’ Up album on Blue Note from 1961 or “Hank’s Shout” from Introducing Lee Morgan With Hank Mobley’s Quintet on Savoy. Hank comes out swinging and never stops.

Mobley stayed true to the game until he retired with respiratory problems in the mid-’70s but his music continues to grab the attention of new jazz aficionados’ and keep the love of longtime, loyal fans like myself.

Thanks Hank.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.

Record Rack: The Michael Treni Big Band, Hadiza Dockeray

July 31, 2013

Summer at the Ocean and a Box of Chocolates

 By Brian Arsenault

The Michael Treni Big Band

 Pop-Culture Blues

My favorite piece on Pop-Culture Blues is “Summer Blues.”  Maybe because it’s still summer, the very heart of it.

The tune begins on a languorous afternoon with a beverage — perhaps several — looking at the ocean. A flock of seabirds rises and soars on Jerry Bergonzi’s tenor sax solo.

Freddie Hendrix’ flugelhorn takes us back to the beach, first quiet after the noisy flock is gone but then the waves start to crash as the tide comes in. Then evening.  Peaceful as the light dims but maybe a brief fierce summer storm rises. Quickly dispelled by a warm summer breeze. The moon rises.

On the other hand, my affection could originate in the song’s inspiration, the music of John Coltrane. Who better to draw inspiration from.

Well, you’ll also find songs on the album inspired by the Duke, the Count, cool master Mulligan, Mingus, McCoy Tyner and others.

The Michael Treni Big Band has given us a kind of orchestral history of American jazz as tied to the blues. Complete with sort of a textbook. Treni calls the work a Suite in 10 Parts and it earns that conceit.

It’s hard enough to do a single quality work in tribute to the music of one of the greats.  More than a half dozen is heady stuff. And to interweave jazz with its base the blues as the greats did. Whew.

But don’t be put off by the album’s lofty ambition.  The music  is just delicious.  The high points?  I’m sure to omit several but here’s a short list:

Ÿ         Treni himself taking the trombone lead on “Minor Blues.”

Ÿ         Pianists Jim Ridl (who I think channels Bill Evans on the album’s opener) and Charles Blensig all over the place.

Ÿ         Chris Persad’s trumpet on “BQE Blues”.

Ÿ         And of course Bergonzi and Hendrix on “Summer Blues.”

So what are we to make of the title?  In his “textbook,” Treni gives us three choices that you can read for yourself.  I’ll venture a two-part fourth.

That jazz should be part of popular culture and not retire to academia and that the blues was part of pop music before white folks much even knew it.  White audiences didn’t get to hear much real blues because of Jim Crow, racist radio and well, cut to the chase, prejudice, which is just another word for stupidity.

It’s the real reason Elvis was so important. He pushed opened a door that couldn’t then be fully closed again. Even though his art was eventually co-opted to pop, often junk pop, the base in the blues could not be denied.

A decade or so later, artists like the Stones and Hendrix and Paul Butterfield kicked that door wide open. Even the originals came sliding through, some before they could die.

Large bands are enjoying a renaissance in various forms and shapes these days.  I just wish my Dad were here for it. He’d be listening for the influence of the big swing bands like Tommy Dorsey’s and Glenn Miller’s. That’s out there, too, except that there can’t be another Sinatra.

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 Hadiza Dockeray

 Chapter 4

Currently available only digitally, Hadiza Dockery’s LP Chapter 4 is a lot like a sample box of real good chocolates.  Different flavors. Different tastes. Different moods.

There’s a Carol King reminder on “Too Long” which Hadiza says in her notes was intended to be 1970s soft rock. Mission accomplished.

There’s a little bossa nova on “The Other Voice” where guitarist Steve Bargonetti makes his best contribution on acoustic.  His electric playing elsewhere sounds like a derivative only house guitarist.

In fact, that’s a problem I have with this short album.  The musicians were assembled.  It’s not “her” band. While assembly for studio work sometimes works, it doesn’t completely here.

In fact, even on a strong bluesy number like “Somebody Better,” Hadiza seems a bit restrained, contained. Is it the band?  Is it the studio?

I was going to suggest another producer before I saw that she produced it herself. Well, artists do like control. . .

Maybe a concert album. She is reputed to be unbridled and powerful in concert. I haven’t seen her.  Would like to.

This is a big voice. Big as in great tonality, diction, phrasing. All the elements are there.

On “Off the Grid” they come up, they rock out.  There’s power, complexity, nifty shifts.

She needs to move further off the grid. And get her own band. And make them hers. And record with them. And maybe a producer who isn’t her, at least in second chair to shake her head when it’s not quite right.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Live Jazz: A Brief History Of The World (Piano Division) with Alan Pasqua and Tom Schnabel

May 21, 2013

By Michael Katz

Jazz on the Westside found a cozy nook to curl up in Monday night, as radio station KCRW presented an Up Close event with pianist Alan Pasqua and music host Tom Schnabel at the New Roads School in Santa Monica. The goal of the evening, a one hour tour of the history of jazz piano, was nothing if not ambitious – it takes Ken Burns an hour just to say hello. And unlike Burns, Messrs. Pasqua and Schnabel elected not to leave out everything after 1950. The idea was to focus on a dozen or so icons, and naturally there were a few interesting inclusions and omissions. Most enjoyably, there was some exquisite solo playing by Pasqua, particularly in celebration of a new CD dedicated to Bill Evans.

Pasqua began with a nod to Jellyroll Morton. Playing a brief version of “Tomcat Blues,” circa 1920, he gave the audience a demonstration of how Morton moved the music from its ragtime roots to the edge of stride and what would become the trademark sound of Louis Armstrong and others. Progressing to the era of Basie and Ellington, Pasqua discussed how Duke used his piano style to recreate the full sound of his orchestra, through brief interludes of “Take The A Train” and “Sophisticated Lady.”

Alan Pasqua

Alan Pasqua

There are certain players who can’t be left out in a Tour De Jazz Piano: Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Errol Garner. Their contributions are found in various combinations of brilliant compositions and technical and harmonic stylings. Monk, in particular, has a trove of compositions that invite contemporary interpretation. Given the relatively brief time of the show, it was nice that Pasqua chose to explore one Monk tune fully.  He filled in the opening bridge of “Round Midnight” with a flourish and extended the standard with his own lively adaptation. Whereas with Bud Powell, he discussed jazz contrafact, demonstrating how Powell took the chord changes from “How High The Moon” and converted them to his own dense style in Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology.”

The one name that most in the audience were unfamiliar with was Jaki Byard, best known for his work with Eric Dolphy and, through much of the sixties, Charles Mingus.  More significantly to this evening, he was a teacher and mentor to Alan Pasqua, so if his presence in this list seems slightly biased, that’s quite all right. “Tribute To The Ticklers” was a nod to Fats Waller and the stride pianists. It is noteworthy that in the turbulent sixties, when Byard wrote this piece, he was able to reach backwards and create something contemporary, a reminder that jazz is a living time machine, able to go in every direction in ways unlike most other musical forms.

Tom Schnabel

Tom Schnabel

There were nods to others, including McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, and time constraints didn’t allow Pasqua to get to Dave McKenna and Keith Jarrett. Not surprisingly there were some notable omissions, most obviously Dave Brubeck. Pasqua allowed in the Q and A afterward that he didn’t think he could attempt to approach Brubeck without a rhythm section, though I don’t think you can leave him out of the conversation. Same with Oscar Peterson, ditto Mary Lou Williams. And the show’s format had such a resemblance to Marion McPartland’s Piano Jazz series, that she probably deserved a mention as well.

I’ve left Bill Evans for last, because he’s such a clear influence on Pasqua. There was a brief quote from “Green Dolphin Street,” followed by a lovely medley of Evans’ composition “Very Early,” and his classic interpretation of “Sleepin’ Bee.” Evans’ use of harmonics, his ability to sound almost lush and yet breathtakingly simple at the same time, challenge any type of written transposition. Pasqua’s new CD Two Piano Music is a nod to Evans’ Conversations With Myself, consisting of dual solo piano tracks. Pasqua’s composition “Grace” is on that CD, and that is how he concluded the hour long performance Monday night.

KCRW host Schnabel provided a bright counterpoint throughout the evening, offering a wealth of jazz knowledge to go along with Pasqua’s own musical history. He’s planning a similar evening focusing on Brazilian music later on this year, and that is good news for jazz fans in Santa Monica, and one assumes listeners of KCRW as well.

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To read more iRoM reviews and posts by Michael Katz click HERE.

Click HERE to visit Michael Katz’s personal blog, Katz of the Day.

Live Jazz: The Arturo Sandoval Big Band Performs for the California Jazz Foundation at Catalina Bar & Grill

April 22, 2013

By Don Heckman

Hollywood, CA.  “Let’s Give the Band A Hand” was the title for the jazz celebration at Catalina Bar & Grill Sunday night.  It was right on target.  The program was the annual fund-raiser for the California Jazz Foundation.  And the very worthy honoree was Catalina Popescu.  Both the CJF and Catalina have been “giving the band a hand” for years.

The celebration began late in the afternoon with cocktails on the outdoor patio and music by the Keith Jones Trio.  At dinner time, everyone moved inside the club for an evening of feasting, opening with a performance of the youthful, but very promising players of  “The Next Route”  and climaxing with the Arturo Sandoval Big Band.

Catalina Popescu

Catalina Popescu


Before the music began, Catalina received her much deserved award from the CJF, there was a fund-raising auction and the brief acknowledgment of a few of the numerous jazz supporters and celebrities in the audience.

But the musical high point of the event was the dynamic performance by Sandoval and the world class players in his Big Band.

The program included a few selections from a Sandoval performance at Catalina’s last November.  But both Sandoval and his players performed at such a high level that there was no sense of redundancy.

As usual, Sandoval’s far-ranging virtuosity was on full display.  His trumpet playing was extraordinary.  From a lush “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” to an energetic and sometimes humorous duet on “And Then She Stopped” with trumpeter Gary Grant and another duet on “Waynard and Maynard,” originally written for Wayne Bergeron and Maynard Ferguson, here performed by Wayne and Arturo.

Arturo Sandoval and Wayne Bergeron

He also sang, in convincing ballad style, his own tune, “Every Day I Think of You,” inspired by his mentor, Dizzy Gillespie, and backed by a warm undercurrent of fills from tenor saxophonist Bob Sheppard.

On an untitled blues, Sandoval led the band through an improvised, on the spot arrangement, assembled spontaneously as he gestured to different soloists and sections, winding up with something resembling a Count Basie big band jam.  For “All the Things You Are,” featuring solos from alto saxophonist Dan Higgins and trombonist Bob McChesney, Sandoval showcased his impressive piano chops.  And in the closing fireworks of “Mambo Caliente,” he switched to timbales, displaying equally remarkable percussion skills.

Other high points of the evening included Higgins’ playing and arranging on the gorgeous saxophone soli of “The Man I Love,” and the bop-driven “Algo Bueno,” as well as Rusty Higgins’ expressive rendering of “Body And Soul.”

All in all, a remarkable collection of music, superbly performed.  And the only surprise was the early departure of many members of the audience – unexpected for a crowd that was presumably dedicated to jazz.  (Maybe not so surprising in Los Angeles, where people have been known to leave Dodger stadium in the seventh inning of a tie game to beat the traffic.)

But, beyond the pleasures of the music and the award to Catalina Popescu, the important aspect of the evening was the fund-raising for the California Jazz Foundation and its dedicated efforts to keep food on the table and a roof over the heads of the many needy jazz players and singers.

To learn more about the work of the California Jazz Foundation, click HERE.

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Photos by Bob Barry.

Live Jazz: Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at Disney Hall

March 13, 2013

By Michael Katz

When Wynton Marsalis led his star-studded Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra onto the stage at a sold-out Disney Hall last night, he was greeted so warmly that you could sense the mutual appreciation before the first note was played. That feeling lasted throughout a memorable evening, underpinned by the band’s roots in Ellingtonia and bolstered by a combination of new compositions and fresh arrangements of material by Gerry Mulligan, Chick Corea and more.

The talent in this orchestra is staggering. Consider the trumpet section, led by Ryan Kisor  and featuring the terrific Marcus Printup and Mingus Big Band alum Kenny Rampton.   Not to mention Marsalis, himself, who picked his spots in several riveting choruses. Then there’s the front line of saxophones, with tenors Walter Blanding and Victor Goines anchoring the flanks, Ted Nash and Sherman Irby in the middle, playing alto and flutes, and a rising star, Paul Nedzela on baritone.

Wynton Marsalis and the brass of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

I was less familiar with the trombone section, but they staked out their territory early, with section leader Chris Crenshaw’s composition “Creation.” After an opening fanfare from Printup and some gently swinging tenor work from Victor Goines,  Crenshaw and his cohorts, Vincent Gardner and Elliot Mason, took over. The Ellington influence was clear in Crenshaw’s composition – not just in the harmonics, but in the idea of the jazz orchestra as an organic conduit for the range of human emotions. If that seems to oversell the idea a little, it does provide a heartbeat for the diverse menu that followed.

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis

Marsalis led JLCO to the Count Basie book for Frank Foster’s “Blues in Hoss Flat,” which featured Wynton’s first turn with a muted horn, and another spirited run by Goines on tenor. But it was pianist Dan Nimmer who stole the number. With all the fine section playing in this band, Nimmer often gets the best opportunities for expansive solos (there is, after all, no piano section). He has a deft touch, subtly shifting moods and tempos. Marsalis wisely gives him room in this powerful ensemble to establish himself.

If their overall oeuvre seemed a little retro at that point, the next segment, a nod to the late Gerry Mulligan, brought the band squarely into the hearts of this LA crowd. The first Mulligan tune, “Over The Hill And Out Of The Woods,” epitomized Mulligan’s swing and grace. Nimmer carried the melody along, joined by  Nash and Irby on flutes and a muted trumpet section behind them. There was lovely solo work by Kisor and Crenshaw. Oddly enough, the tune featured everything except the baritone sax. That was remedied quickly as Paul Nedzela and Dan Zimmer teamed up for a gorgeous version of “Lonesome Boulevard.” It is impossible to duplicate Mulligan’s lithe, almost effortless handling of the bari sax, but Nedzela did a splendid job of being reminiscent of the style without resorting to mimickry. The crowd was captivated by this extended performance, and rewarded him with a sustained ovation.

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

Wynton, in the meantime, was comfortably ensconced with the trumpet line in the back row. In this age of megalomania, it is a revelation to see this band work without anyone standing out front. The pace is set subtly, with Sherman Irby sometimes counting things out from his front row center perch. But Marsalis is in charge, and last night he seemed particularly at home in the den-like atmosphere of Disney Hall. His reflections were witty and heartfelt, with the occasional spontaneous quips from the band. Following the Mulligan tribute, he introduced an Ellington line called “Braggin’ In Brass,” which he described as so difficult for the featured trombone section that Ellington only performed it once. The chorus indeed was a challenge, a burst of staccato playing by Crenshaw, Gardner and Mason, thankfully (for them) brief, abetted by some great brushwork by Ali Jackson on drums. As if to apologize for putting his ‘Bones through the wringer, Marsalis responded with an extended riff, rolling off brilliant cadenzas while the trombones caught their breadth.

The next two numbers featured the woodwinds of Ted Nash. First was a new arrangement of Chick Corea’s “Windows.” The song, which became a signature tune for flutist Hubert Laws, provided ample opportunities for Nash. He designated the theme to the trombone section, led  by Vincent . They provided a lush backdrop,  leaving Nash to explore the nuances with some lilting flute work before handing the melody back to Dan Nimmer for a gentle coda.  After a brief anecdotal interlude by Wynton, there was a special treat. Dick Nash, the 85 year-old father of Ted, came on stage. With a tambourine intro by Ali Jackson and another piano flourish by Nimmer, Nashes pere et fil performed “All The Things You Are.” Dick Nash’s tones were as full and sweet as ever, his lanky frame a visual delight as well, maneuvering the slide trombone.

Sherman Irby took the spotlight for the next two numbers. His elegiac composition “Insatiable Hunger,” featured a Walter Blanding solo on his curved soprano sax and some nice muted trombone work by Crenshaw, as well as Irby’s dramatic alto. Then there was his muted brass arrangement of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,”  which featured Vincent Gardner on the vocals. It also featured a joyful bass solo by Carlos Henriquez, who had been steady throughout the evening, but began to find some solo room as the concert reached its conclusion.

The nominal end to the evening was Kenny Dorham’s “Stage West,” which gave some solo work to a few of the players from whom we hadn’t heard enough: Ryan Kisor, Eliot Mason, more great stick work from Ali Jackson and a terrific turn from Walter Blanding. Of course, the audience wouldn’t let the band leave, and they returned with a spirited Ellington extravaganza.

***** ***** *****

At this point, your critic puts his pen down and simply stands with the crowd, enjoying the romp. When it is over, the band leaves but Wynton stays, along with the rhythm section. He rewards the crowd with a brief quartet turn, a Satchmo-drenched blues, before trailing off into the night.

To read more iRoM reviews and posts by Michael Katz, click HERE.

To visit Michael Katz’s personal blog, “Katz of the Day,” click HERE.

Photos by Tony Gieske.

Live Jazz: the Bob Mintzer and Bill Cunliffe Big Bands

December 3, 2012

By Don Heckman

Anyone who doubts the excitement, the imagination and the contemporary vitality of big band jazz should have been at Vitello’s last weekend.  Over the course of Friday and Saturday nights, two stellar ensembles – the Bob Mintzer Big Band and the Bill Cunliffe Big Band – offered invigorating reminders of the still-potent pleasures of big band jazz.

Friday night’s program featured the Mintzer band in a program titled “Homage To Count Basie.”  And composer/saxophonist/bandleader Mintzer couldn’t have chosen a better model than the iconic Basie band with which to display his group’s impressive musical wares.

The Bob Mintzer Big Band

The Bob Mintzer Big Band

Mintzer opened, appropriately, with the Basie theme song, “One O’Clock Jump.”  And the music began to cook from the first opening passages, as the rhythm section – pianist Russell Ferrante, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Edwin Livingston and drummer Peter Erskine – dug deeply into the classic Basie groove.

There was more Basie to come, including the familiar strains of “April in Paris,” Neal Hefti’s “Cute,” and “Shiny Stockings.”  Topping it off, Mintzer added some Basie-inspired music of his own, including “Lester Jumps Out” and “Home Basie,” an irresistibly swinging musical blending of Basie’s rhythms and James Brown’s effervescence.

Add to that more originals – “Elegant People” and “Havin’ Some Fun” among them – showcasing Mintzer’s broad, far-reaching skills as a composer/arranger.

Bob Mintzer

Bob Mintzer

Also a hard-driving tenor saxophonist, Mintzer added some substantial soloing of his own.  But his band was also filled with other primo soloists, among them saxophonists Bob Sheppard, Keith Fiddmont, Brian Scanlon and Adam Schroeder, trumpeters John Daversa and Wayne Bergeron, and pianist Ferrante, all playing in a manner that honored the Basie style.

And it was fascinating to observe the excitement coursing through the full house crowd as the sounds of big band jazz at its finest filled the room.

On Saturday night it happened all over gagin, as the Bill Cunliffe ensemble offered a “Big Band Holiday Kick Off.”  Toward that end, however, pianist/composer/bandleader Cunliffe began his set with a quartet – featuring his piano along with guitarist John Chiodini, bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Joe La Barbera – playing a non-stop medley of holiday tunes.  Among them – “Winter Wonderland,” “Silent Night” (featuring seasonally atmospheric soloing from Chiodini) and “Carol of the Bells.”  Cunliffe added a solo piano take on “Christmas Time Is Here,” and singer Dawn Bishop joined the ensemble, singing “The Christmas Song” (and later adding her engaging versions of “Almost Like Being In Love” and “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” — not exactly seasonal songs, but appealing, nonetheless).

The Bill Cunliffe Big Band

The Bill Cunliffe Big Band

Cunliffe’s great versatility in big band scoring was also highly visible in the Latin rhythms of “Havana” and an original piece (title unannounced) written for a film about the Celtics.  In it, Cunliffe perfectly captured the driving, big band Swing era style of the late ‘30s.  His version of “Round Midnight,” featuring tenor saxophonist Jeff Elwood, brought traces of Thelonious Monk dissonances into the big band fabric. And there were numerous other fine soloists as well: including trumpeter Bijon Watson, alto saxophonist Bruce Babad and trombonist Alex Isles, among others.

Bill Cunliffe

Bill Cunliffe

The closing piece, whimsically titled “The Goldberg Contraption,” was a work based on various J.S. Bach compositions (including the Goldberg Variations).  In it, Cunliffe adroitly positioned rich Bach harmonies and compelling contrapuntal passages within the colorful textures and surging rhythms of big band jazz.

Call it a brilliant, two-night display of the far-ranging possibilities of the big jazz band format, when it’s in the hands of composer/arrangers as gifted as Bob Mintzer and Bill Cunliffe.  Big Band jazz, in their work, is still very much alive.  Ask anyone who was present in the full house crowds.

Bob Mintzer photos by Faith Frenz.

Bill Cunliffe photos by Bob Barry.

Picks of the Week: Nov. 27 – Dec. 2

November 27, 2012

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Carol Welsman

- Nov. 27 & 28. (Tues. & Wed.)  “And Then She Wrote.”  With Peter Marshall, Carol Welsman and Denise Donatelli.  A new version of an entertaining show dedicated to the female composers and lyricists of the Great American Songbook.  Tuesday night the duo of Marshall and Welsman perform; on Wednesday, Donatelli joins them in a trio.  She replaces Calabria Foti from the original cast.  Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

- Nov 27 – 30. (Tues. – Fri.)  Bela Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio.  It may sound like an odd combination, but banjoist Fleck and pianist Roberts are both dedicated musical adventurers.  Catalina Bar & Grill.   (323) 466-2210.

Louie Cruz Beltran

- Nov. 29. (Thurs.)  Louie Cruz Beltran.  The busy percussionist and bandleader adds vocals to his impressive array of entertainment talents, singing and playing Latin Standards, American classics and a few surprises.  He’ll be backed by pianist Carlos Vivas, bassist Pat Senatore and drummer Ramon Banda.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.     (310) 474-9400.

- Nov. 29 – Dec. 2.  (Thurs. – Sun.)  The Marcus Shelby Quartet.  Bassist Shelby offers a program celebrating “the evolution of American social movements through music.”  The Skirball Cultural Centert   (310) 440-4500.

- Nov. 30. (Fri.) Bob Mintzer.  “Homage to Count Basie Band.”  Saxophonist Mintzer leads an evening of big band music dedicated to the classic rhythms of the Basie Band, and featuring some of the Southland’s finest players. Vitello’s.    (818) 769-0905.

- Dec. 1 (Sat.)  The Anonymous 4. The all-female vocal quartet, well-known for their Renaissance music performances, take a different tack with  “Love Fail,” a contemporary work composed by David LangCAP UCLA Royce Hall.    (310) 825-2101.

Bill Cunliffe

- Dec. 1. (Sat.) Bill Cunliffe’s Big Band “Holiday Kick-Off.”  The Big Band weekend at Vitello’s continues with pianist/arranger/composer Cunliffe’s celebration of the holiday season. Vitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

- Dec. 1. (Sat.)  8th Annual Fil-Am Jazz Festival. An evening celebrating the growing numbers of fine Filipino jazz artist.  Heading the line-up, Charmaine Clamor, the Queen of Jazzipino.  Catalina Bar & Grill.   (323) 466-2210.

San Francisco

- Dec. 2. (Sun.) The Blind Boys of Alabama. The multiple Grammy-winning gospel singers, performing for decades, are a musical inspiration.  An SFJAZZ event at the Herbst Theatre.    (866) 920-5299.


- Nov. 29 – Dec. 2 (Thurs. – Sun.)  Tom Harrell Quintet. Trumpeter Harrell leads a stellar ensemble in a program displaying his extensive talents as an instrumentalist and composer.   Jazz Showcase.   (312) 360-0234.

New York

Eliane Elias

- Nov. 27 – Dec. 1. (Tues. – Sat.)  Eliane Elias   Brazilian pianist/singer Elias makes her Birdland debut.  Expect an evening ranging from Elias’ superb jazz piano to her authentically Brazilian way with a song.  Birdland.    (212) 581-3080.

- Nov. 27 – Dec. 2. (Tues. – Sun.)  Geri Allen ‘s Timeline Band.  Pianist Allen honors the connection between jazz and tap dancing in a performance featuring the rhythmic stepping of dancer Maurice Chestnut. Jazz Standard.   (212) 889-2005.


- Nov. 27 – Dec. 1. (Tues. – Sat.)  The Mingus Big Band.  The music of composer/bassist Mingus is kept vividly alive, in all its many manifestations by the Mingus Big Band.  Ronnie Scott’s.    +44 (0)20 7439 0747.


Kenny Barron

- Nov. 28 & 29. (Wed. & Thurs.)  Kenny Barron Solo Piano. He’s been everyone’s first call jazz pianist for decades, but the most intriguing way to hear the free-roving Barron improvisational imagination is in this kind of solo piano performance. Jazzhus Montmartre.   (+45) 70 15 65 65.


- Nov. 29. (Thurs.)  Carmen Lundy.  Jazz singer Lundy’s superb interpretive artistry is enhanced by her original songs.  Blue Note Milano.   02.690 16888.


- Nov. 30 – Dec. 3. (Fri. – Mon.)  David Sanborn.  Alto saxophonist Sanborn’s unique, blues-driven style has impacted the past few decades of arriving saxophonists.  He performs selections from his new, 2-CD album, AnthologyBlue Note Tokyo.  03-5485-0088.

Live Music: A Ray Charles Tribute at the Hollywood Bowl

July 13, 2012

By Michael Katz

When you consider the arc of Ray Charles’ career – jazz, blues, R&B, country, it’s no surprise that it took a village Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl to pay tribute to him. There was an all-star jazz band, in addition to the Count Basie Band, strings, a choir, headliners from all the touchstones of Charles’ music, plus a loaded version of the Raelettes (Patti Austin!), all tied up in a ribbon by Tavis Smiley. If it only occasionally matched the searing genius of Brother Ray Himself, it did keep everyone on their toes.

Ray Charles’ voice was unmistakable – not just for the raw soulfulness mixed with lyric grace, but for the pain that was never far from the surface. There is a certain courageousness in that for a male singer, and  it’s not surprising that the women on the program seemed to channel Charles’ spirit most effectively, with Dee Dee Bridgewater and Ms. Austin exhibits A and 1A. More on that later.

The first half of he show was anchored by an all-star band led by drummer and musical director Gregg Field. The front line featured Terence Blanchard and Scotty Barnhart (Barnhart also led the trumpet section of the Basie band), with Dave Koz on alto sax, Houston Person on tenor and Tom Scott on baritone. George Duke sparkled throughout the concert on piano and electric keyboards, with Shelly Berg’s Hammond B-3  percolating underneath it all.

R&B singer BeBe Winans was the opening vocalist, smoothly working through “I Got A Woman” and a more expressive “Drown In My Own Tears.” Perhaps that is damning with faint praise, but the raw power of Ray Charles was lurking in the background, and anything short of that can’t help but be noticed. The band had “Them That Got” to themselves, featuring Dave Koz  on alto and Tom Scott picking up his soprano. Koz is a star on the smooth jazz scene and dominated the sax solos during the show — this inevitably left less room for Houston Person, which was regrettable. That big tenor sound, exemplified by the late David “Fathead” Newman, whose name never came up during the evening, was a major part of the Charles sound.

Dee Dee Bridgewater

And then came Dee Dee Bridgewater. Head shaven, clad in a stunning gold dress, she took over the show from the first note. She started with “Hallelujah I Love Him So,” backed up by Houston Person in his one soulful excursion of the night. She followed with “I Believe In My Soul” and the rousing “I Got News For You,” which brought Blanchard out front on trumpet and Duke alternating from keyboards to piano. Dee Dee Bridgewater simply has it all – the booming voice in perfect pitch, the sassiness in her presentation, the hurt and tenderness when she needed to reach back for it. All of it flows naturally, not a note forced. Thankfully she wasn’t done for the night.

Patti Austin

The next section of the show featured Ray Charles’ foray into Country and Western music. It started with a standout version of the Raelettes, with Patti Austin and Siedah Garrett. Garrett led Charles’ smoldering version of “You Are My Sunshine,” then Patti Austin took center stage. Austin is just too much of a presence to keep in the background. Her intro to “Come Rain or Come Shine” seemed effortless, but before you knew it  she had you in her grasp – her version of the ballad stood right there with Ray Charles’s.

Country music singer Martina McBride closed the first half of the program.  If you are mainly a jazz or R&B fan with a tangential knowledge of country, McBride’s voice fits in solidly with the post-Loretta Lynn/Patsy Cline tradition.  Producers Gregg Field and the legendary Phil Ramone  were smart to give her a variety of settings, instead of just covering Charles’ C&W oeuvre. “Bye Bye Love” had the Raelettes behind her, then a combination of strings and the Fred Martin/Levite Camp of Urban Entertainment Institute choir filled up the stage for “You Don’t Know Me” and “Take These Chains.” Finally,  trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval came onstage and joined McBride for the Hank Williams standard “Hey, Good Lookin’.” Cuban Country Soul…you just don’t get that everywhere.

The second half of the show was anchored by the Count Basie Big Band,   featuring the aforementioned Barnhart on trumpet and Reggie Thomas on piano. The main vocalist for much of the set was Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds. He’s an appealing singer, his voice pitched a little higher than Winans, but he just doesn’t have the visceral appeal to carry this music. “Let The Good Times Roll” was a good vehicle to start his segment. There were Charles standards to follow like “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Crying Time,” which featured Monica Mancini stepping out in front of the Raelettes.

Bebe Winans

But the real fireworks came as the program concluded. There was BeBe Winans reaching back for a little extra on “How Long Has This Been Going On?” Then Dee Dee Bridgewater came back out and tore the place up again with “Busted.” Before the final numbers, the video screens flashed a clip of Ray Charles as a guest on Saturday Night Live, Year 2, with Murray, Belushi, Gildna Radner et al playing a cover group, “The Young Caucasians.” It was at once hilarious and a reminder of how far Ray Charles’ music had brought us. It set the stage for “Georgia On My Mind,” which brought back Babyface as well as Patti Austin and the Raelettes, and then the whole production returned for “America The Beautiful.”

Despite the effort to sprinkle the program with all sorts of pop stars, the attendance was only around 10,000. Which makes me wonder, since it is supposed to be a jazz series, why not just give the microphone to Dee Dee Bridgewater, Houston Person, Patti Austin et al and let them try and fill the place up instead of relying on retro themes? I don’t think Ray Charles would have objected.

To read more iRoM reviews and posts by Michael Katz, click HERE.

To visit Michael Katz’s personal blog, “Katz of the Day,” click HERE.

Live Jazz: The Gerald Wilson Big Band at Catalina Bar & Grill

May 7, 2012

By Michael Katz

Gerald Wilson took a near-capacity crowd at Catalina’s on a Tour De Jazz Thursday night. The 93 year old composer/arranger/leader,  possessed of undiminished enthusiasm, spun musical and verbal tales that began with his days in the Jimmie Lunceford Band and included Basie and Ellington, with deft nods to Stravinsky, Puccini and Miles Davis, not to mention two more generations of his own family.

Gerald Wilson

The opening number, “Blues For The Count,” mixed in tributes to Basie and Lunceford, starting with Brian O’Rourke’s bouncy piano intro and opening splashes by Randall Willis on alto sax and Jeff Kaye, the first of three trumpeters to solo during the evening. Anthony Wilson kept up the rhythm, Freddie Green-like, and the band featured a new wrinkle with violinist Yvette Devereaux. Amplifying a violinist to stand up to an 18 piece band is a challenge; while the first go around was a bit strident, Devereaux adapted as the show progressed, with some splendid work later in the evening.

Wilson’s 18 piece band has a rhythm backbone that features his son, Anthony, well-established on the national scene by now as guitarist for Diana Krall, and  O’Rourke, for two decades his regular pianist.  The dominant section of the band, though,  is the saxophones, a Wilson trademark, blending harmonies over a six man group. Kamasi Washington was the lead voice on tenor with Carl Randall close behind; Willis and Mike Nelson split up the alto duties, with Nelson doubling on flute; and Louis Taylor and Terry Landry filled out the bottom on baritones.

Anthony Wilson took over the band’s direction for his composition, “Virgo,” written for his father’s 90th birthday. It began with a lovely intro by O’Rourke, backed by muted trumpets, then gave way to Wilson’s upbeat soloing. The sax front line took over from there, featuring dueling altoists Nelson and Willis.

Gerald Wilson’s latest album, Legacy (Mack Avenue), features several adaptations of classical works. “Variations on a Theme by Stravinsky” is based on “Firebird.” The performance had an intense, urban feel to it, reminiscent of some of the film scores of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Kamasi Washington provided the fire on tenor sax and Ron Barrows contributed a piercing trumpet solo.

Wilson then handed the baton over to the third generation of his family, grandson Eric Otis, whose paternal grandfather was R&B great Johnny Otis. Eric led his composition, “September Sky,” a soft-toned elegy that featured Mike Nelson on flute, as well as the third trumpet soloist Harry Kim.

Wilson, weaving stories from his days with Basie and Ellington, held forth for nearly two hours, only stepping aside the two aforementioned times. The breadth of his work is enormous. There was another classical piece, “Variations on a Theme by Puccini,” which featured violinist Devereaux, now comfortably adapted into the sound mix, as well as the two bari sax players, Taylor and Landry.  There were a couple of standards, brought to life by Wilson’s arrangements. “Perdido,” by Ellington and Juan Tizol, was ushered in by O’Rourke and the sax section, with some rousing solos by Nelson and Carl Randall. The trombone section, led by Les Benedict, didn’t get a lot of soloing this evening, but provided stout section playing throughout. Then there was “Milestones,” another Wilson arrangement which turned the Miles Davis tune into a terrific big band piece, featuring some great give and take with tenors Washington and Randall, and Anthony Wilson breaking loose on guitar.

Wilson closed with “Viva Tirado,” which he wrote in 1962 and was turned into a top forty hit by El Chicano in 1970. For the Wilson band it remains a signature, blow-the-roof-off –the-joint finale. It started with the familiar theme, then Jeff Kaye delivered a trumpet burst and Kamasi Washington belted out another funky tenor solo. Anthony Wilson and Yvette Devereaux took over from there with a down and dirty string duel that had the audience howling. By the end, all the horns were standing, drummer Mel Lee was maintaining some type of order in the back, and the crowd was on their feet as well.

Gerald Wilson presided over it all, a living testament to the vibrancy of Jazz Past, Present and Future.

* * * * * *

To read more iRoM reviews and posts by Michael Katz, click HERE.

To visit Michael Katz’s personal blog, “Katz of the Day,” click HERE.


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