Friday, October 12, 2012

Day One - Groovin’ Hard with the Los Angeles Jazz Institute

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The four-day Groovin’ Hard: Celebrating the Big Band Renaissance event commenced yesterday, Thursday, October 10, 2012 under the auspices of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute and its Director, Ken Poston.

Gordon Sapsed, a regular attendee at LAJI events, continues his write-ups of each day’s proceedings and thanks to his generosity, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles is once able to once again bring you these daily commentaries as noted below.

For more information on the Los Angeles Jazz Institute including ticket ordering for Groovin’ Hard, please visit

© -Gordon Sapsed.  Used with the author’s permission; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The first 'proper' day of the latest LA Jazz Institute event started with Ken Poston introducing a set of film clips to set the scene for the 'Big Band Renaissance' theme. 

The first clips showed the Buddy Rich band soon after its rebirth in the late 1960's with a Pacific Jazz recording contract and a line-up of new young players and the Thad Jones - Mel Lewis band, which had come into being just previously with a New York residency. Both bands were shown in chat-show clips and Ken spoke of the amazing prime time 18-minute exposure that Buddy Rich had on the Tonight Show with 'West Side Story Suite'.

Other clips showed the bands into the 70's, as well as clips of the Kenton Band at that time and, from Europe, the Clark-Boland Band.  Woody Herman's Band, like others had younger players, more exotic uniforms and longer hair styles as well as exciting new music.

The 300 or so attendees at the event then had an hour-long concert of Thad Jones Mel Lewis music delivered by the highly-talented California State University Northridge 'A' Band, directed by John Daversa. The performance was, by any test, outstanding - with perfect ensemble playing and interesting solo work. It was no surprise that it ended with the crowd on their feet and a standing ovation. Originally planned as an outdoor concert, it had been moved indoors following an overnight forecast of impending rain. Although there was no rain the venue change brought the benefit of better sound which the music certainly warranted.

The concert that followed was by an 11-piece band comprising top LA studio players, making its first LAJI appearance. The Pete Christlieb-Linda Small 'Tall & Small' Band has a 'four reeds' frontline - plus the leader making five, backed by co-leader Linda on trombone and two trumpets plus a rhythm section.

Again, the music was outstanding - much of it being from the pen of Bill Holman and appearing on the first 'Tall and Small' album. The record sleeve describes the music as 'Contemporary', but most readers here will know it as interesting tightly-written ensembles, with a linear writing style - very 'Bill Holman'  and following a West-Coast tradition, with a great deal of variety in the voicing and ample solo space.
Unusually, Pete Christlieb on this occasion played baritone on about half the numbers - such as Mulligan's 'I know but I don't know how' and 'Young Blood'. Other titles included 'Everything I Love', 'Ballade' and a delightful feature for the joint leaders on 'The Meaning of the Blues'.

The other players were Gary Foster, Terry Harrington, Alex Budman and Lee Secard who played all saxes or  all clarinets, or with two baritone saxes or two bass clarinets, or including sopranos, as required.

The two trumpet parts were played by Bob Summers and Jeff Bunnell, with Geoff Stradling (p), Jim Hughart (b) and Steve Schaeffer (d). 

The band is about to record a second album - while the first, with those Bill Holman arrangements, is available now as a CD or as a download from various sites.
Then - off to the smaller room, where Larry Hathaway moderated what he described as the '257th LAJI Kenton Panel discussion'. Kentonian alumni present this time were from that 1970's era - Mike Vax, Jay Sollenberger, Al Yankee, Greg Smith and Jim Oatts.

They recalled a string of experiences most of which centered around Stan Kenton himself - from an era when most of the band were newly out of music college and the leader was several decades older. The stories were of unrelenting one-nighters interleaved with a lot of jazz education camps and college dates and life on a bus.
The evening gave an opportunity to hear those same players and a dozen others offering 'The Creative World of Stan Kenton' in two one-hour sets.

Described as an 'All Star Band featuring Stan Kenton alumni', the orchestra was an 18-piece aggregation, led by Mike Vax, who gave a commentary on all of the music - selected primarily from the Kenton repertoire as offered in the 1970's. That did not, of course, preclude music that originated earlier - indeed the most spectacular item was ‘Peanut Vendor,’ which closed the first set and involved the trumpets roaming the body of the hall. The opener had been 'Also Sprach Zarathustra'  which was, on this occasion long-time Woody Herman trombonist John Fedchock's introduction to the Kenton book - but he had Kenton veterans Eric Jorgensen, Roy Weigand and Kenny Shroyer alongside him and Craig Gosnell handing the baritone and tuba parts. Saxes Alex Budman, Roger Neumann and Doug Webb had Al Yankee and Greg Smith alongside them - their showpieces included Kenton's first-ever arrangement for the band 'Reed Rapture'.

Although Mike Vax did not have his current alumni associates alongside him, he did have 1970's bandmates Jay Sollenberger and Jim Oatts as well as Carl Saunders and Steve Huffsteter. They all negotiated their way through some of the multi-rhythm Hank Levy charts which saw their origin in the 70's as well as items from the Lennie Niehaus 'dance' book.

Keeping the whole thing together, with great verve and enthusiasm was Peter Erskine at the drums and Dave Stone's authoritative bass. Pianist Geoff Stradling had a night off from leading his own big band to take the piano chair. 

Other music heard during these two sets included 'Chelsea Bridge', 'Here Comes That Rainy Day', Gene Roland's 'Blues Story' and Willie Maiden's ‘Little Minor Blues’ ( or 'Booze', as first titled, apparently).

Throughout the evening Mike Vax, whether up the back with the trumpets, or down the front, ran his commentary on the music and Kentonian times in the 70's. One feature for him was the 'Love Theme from Hair', which he set out to play 'dirtier' than Jack Sheldon !

Unlike Mike's Alumni Band, this evening WAS an exercise in Kentonian nostalgia, but the audience, which included Joanne Kenton, Howard Rumsey and many other members of the LA jazz elite as well as Kentonians from across the nation and abroad, were on their feet to give a standing ovation when it ended with Bill Holman's 'Malaguena'.” 

Gordon Sapsed

(Kentonia subscribers who missed yesterday's 'Woody Herman' report can find it on Steve Cerra's Cerrajazz blog :