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.
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.
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.
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.
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.