Sunday, October 14, 2012

Day Three - 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 concluded it’s third day yesterday, Saturday, October 11, 2012 under the auspices of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute and its Director, Ken Poston.

Gordon Sapsed, a regular attendee at LAJI events, develops an overview of each day’s proceedings and thanks to his generosity, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles is privileged to bring you his daily annotations as noted below.

Our apologies for failing to note previously that the illustrations we have been using to populate these features are drawn from the event brochure as designed by Kurt Reichenbach.

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.

 "Saturday morning at LAJI began with a clip of the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band from the 1970s (perhaps at Monterey?). Last time here we saw them in person but this time it was nice to see them 35 or so years ago and hear the music again.

Ken Poston puts a lot of work into these film shows and it's good to see audiences of 100 plus supporting them at 9 am. After that band we saw BIll Watrous from the 1970's - with that same hair style - although yesterday's live version might be grayer - the movie was in black and white. Bill guested on that occasion in the movie with somebody else's band (Tonight Show?). Then, with clothes and hair and time signatures all screaming "1970's" we saw clips of Maynard Ferguson's UK Band - with Peter King and Danny Moss, Woody's Band with Sal Nistico, Buddy Rich playing Weather Report's  "Birdland" (on a curious kit which seemed to have silver cymbals). We also saw the Don Ellis Band, when Art Pepper was with him - or said to be - the clip showed only dancers.

Next up was a panel 'Remembering Buddy Rich,’ which was a lot of fun. Bobby Shew, Chuck Findley and Carl Saunders shared the lead and all improvised beautifully, with Richie Cole, Ernie Watts, Charles Owens and Greg Smith all competing to see who had most-often been fired by Buddy. Bobby won - as he does so often on panels.. Comments included ' anything he could do on a snare drum he could also do on the bass drum with one foot', 'He couldn't read a note, but play it through twice and he could beat out every part for every instrument' … 'that anger gave him an energy rush and was often for just that reason'. All recalled their stay on that band as a great learning experience and often as a major highlight of all their career, despite the occasional grief and pain.

Then to the delight of fresh air and sunshine lovers - out to the Pool, where the very first outdoor session involved the Saddleback College 'Wednesday Night Community Big Band' ( a title distinguishing it from eight other Jazz bands at the College). Whilst the players might give the impression that the G.I. Bill is still strong down in Miision Viejo, it turned out that older members, who often have pro or semi-pro experience or Berklee credentials, are allowed in. Scheduled to play Gil Evans' 'Svengali' Charts the band had to settle for items from Sun Ra's book, when the Evans Estate refused LAJI use of the charts. Sun Ra was, however, rendered beautifully, as were some charts by Saddleback student arrangers. Full disclosure demands I report that the band also sang - a chant from Sun Ra's 'We are Space Travellers'. Joey Sellers directed the band. 

Then back indoors for that 70's sound of the biting alto sax of Tom Scott leading his 'California Express'. Gilbert Castellanos on trumpet- who impresses more with every hearing, was alongside him and I was delighted to see young drummer Dan Schelle - who often leads all-youngster groups at the Lighthouse and Quinn Johnson at the piano. This was their 'audition' with Tom Scott - who said they passed - after two numbers! Trey Henry on bass needed no audition. The band played favourites of Tom Scott and some of his originals ( you can do that when you're leader). Titles included Victor Feldman's 'The Chant', LeGrand's 'His Eyes, Her Eyes', Tom's Original 'Way Back When'  and Billie Jo MacAlastair's sad tale ...  A great swinging set - showing that the 70's were not all odd time signatures, or noisy,  musically.

The next three hours were 'Dream Time' for fans of, and former players with, The Don Ellis Band.

We opened with an hour of "Panel Discussion', when eight former members of the band gathered and told their stories of the band - mostly in terms of what versions of the band they played in. Unfortunately the sound system in that room - described earlier by Carl Saunders as 'worse than most train stations' had a bad afternoon . Despite eight microphones there was a problem at any given time in hearing the person speaking until perhaps halfway through their comment. The sound person was perhaps trying to guess who was speaking - or may not have actually been in the room most of the time .....

Musically things looked up as we assembled for the Don Ellis concert which, scheduled for an hour -overran by close to thirty minutes. However, in that time the 21 piece band wove their way through a dozen or so complex compositions bringing 5 trumpets, 4 reeds, two trombones, two violins, a viola, cello, horn, tuba, two percussion , bass and drums together under two directors Ann Patterson and Nick de Scala  About half the players were Don Ellis Alumni and others were session musicians from the LA area. The musicians included Ted Nash, saxes and flute, Alan Kaplan and Rich Bullock trombones, Jimbo Ross, who Leonard Feather described as perhaps the world's greatest jazz viola player, Alan Steinberger at the piano, with Brad Dutz and Pete Korpela on percussion and Dave Crigger, and alumnus of several Don Ellis bands, on drums.

The Don Ellis role was played, very convincingly, throughout, by John Daversa. 
The music included charts from the Star Wars album, Monterey and Montreux, with titles such as 'Desire', 'Loneliness' ( my top-rated tune), Sporting Dance and 9/2 a spectacular closer. The band also played a 'join in and sing' encore.

It was said, in the panel, that jazz fans either love or hate Don Ellis' music. It could certainly not be faulted in terms of enthusiasm or even precision in playing on this occasion - delighting the 'pro' lobby.

Some attendees at the Festival stayed away (about 280 attended by my count) and one jazz-west-coast alumnus said afterwards that he regretted not bringing his 'I survived Don Ellis' tee-shirt. However it was a memorable occasion and demonstrated yet again what LAJI exists for ....  

The two evening sessions had nearly full houses.

First up was a band of Alumni from bands led by Louie Bellson titled "Louie Bellson Explosion Revisited" .

Several of the players had participated in the Panel discussion yesterday, with Director Bill Yeager - a one-time trombonist who established the LA Jazz Workshop bands some years ago and now is a music educator.

For this set he had Jeff Hamilton in the Louie Bellson drum chair - but using his own kit and playing, I thought, in his own Jeff Hamilton big band style - but what a style. He had said yesterday that the role would have him 'sitting further forward and a bit higher' and he certainly sounded on top form.

Soloists included all the saxes Ted Nash, Andy Mackintosh , Rickey Woodard, Albert Alva and Bruce Johnstone, trumpets Bobby Shew Jim Oatts and Don Rader. trombones Jack Redmond, John Fedchock and Paul Young, pianist David Witham and Chuck Berghofer on bass. Also on hand were Mike Wimberly playing bass trombone and trumpeter John Thomas. Guitarist Grant Geissman unfortunately had to cancel at the last minute.

Charts played included originals by Louie Bellson (once described, apparently by Duke Ellington as 'the finest musician ever to play in my band') and several charts from Don Menza. Especially well-received solos came from Ted Nash, Rickey Woodard, Don Rader, Bruce Johnstone and Jeff Hamilton the hero of the set.

"Drummers Dream Night" continued when Peter Erskine, the only non-alumnus for the "Buddy Rich Alumni" - and what a band . How's this for a trumpet section : Bobby Shew , Chuck Findley, Carl Saunders and, to represent Buddy's last band, Kevin Richardson. Trombones Alan Kaplan, John Fedchock ( from Buddy's New York Band) and Mike Wimberly - who was in that ground-breaking 1966 band.
"A sax section to die for" comprised Kim Richmond, Richie Cole, dueling tenors Ernie Watts and Charles Owens, and, from the 1980's band - and the later leader of the horns for the Eagles- Greg Smith. Rich Eames was at the piano and Dave Stone on bass. Peter Erskine's drumming style was 'Peter Erskine Big Band' style and none-the-worse for that - BRILLIANT ! He seemed to be reveling in the role and had the crowd applauding and cheering loudly.

Up front Bobby Shew had made his 'don't clap the solos' speech - 'you might miss something - save it to the end'. I was reminded that Bobby, like many other musicians at this Festival a frequent listener in the audience, was clapping solos enthusiastically in other sets ! The audience couldn't always resist clapping and cheering. I had Gene Cipriano sitting behind me cheering , clapping and laughing .... (such as when Chuck Berghofer did his inevitable 'Boots' walk to end a solo in the Louie Bellson set)

Bobby Shew, as leader in the absence of Buddy Rich, did the introductions from his seat in the trumpets and had put together a set list which included charts from Bill Holman, Don Peistrup, Bill Potts, Don Menza and many others. All the favorites were there as well as some I'll have to go home and dig out again. Bobby did apologize for having left 'Love for Sale' on the table at home ....

Buddy Rich, had he been there would, I'm sure, have fired the drummer - but only to get that seat and be back among it. Otherwise it could go on tour today as the Peter Erskine Band.

This may be seen by some as 'nostalgia' - but what we heard was livin', breathin' , vigorous and enthusiastic nostalgia, with fresh new solos!
- and one more day to go -opening with the Tonight Show Band for brunch ...

(again a reminder that these reports are being saved on Steve Cerra's blog, together with the illustrations from Kurt Reichenbach's LAJI color brochure at

Gordon Sapsed