Friday, May 24, 2013

Los Angeles Jazz Institute, Day One, 5.23.2013 - “Swingin’ On A Riff: Big Band Masters of the 21st Century.”

It’s that time of the year again when the Los Angeles Jazz Institute holds it biannual, 4-day festival at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel. You can locate the full program for the Spring, 2013 Concerts by visiting

Gordon Sapsed arrives from Southampton to attend these event. He generally does write-ups of each day’s activities and has been kind enough to allow the editorial staff at JazzProfiles to share them with visitors to the blog.

Our thanks to Gordon for his generosity in preparing and sharing these observations and comments about the LAJI Spring Festival and, in so doing, making it possible for us to take a bit of a “Spring Break.”

© -Gordon Sapsed, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“On Wednesday this week a bus-load of enthusiasts took the 12 hour round trip from the Marriott Lax to Las Vegas to attend two concerts recalling jazz of yesteryear in 'Sin City'. Reports were that Carl Saunders and Bobby Shew were in fine form playing with a big band aggregation of jazzmen still currently based in Las Vegas.

Tommy Vig had also flown in from Europe to lead the group through some of the charts which established his name there in earlier times.

Thursday brought the first day of the Festival proper, but the opening half hour was not perhaps what Festival attendees expected. 

All events this year are being held indoors so the usual music by the pool in the California sunshine was not available.

Starting time came and went, with an audience of about 100 looking at the Fullerton College Big Band who were assembled and ready to play in the Marquis Ballroom.

Then, in the absence of their leader and with no introduction, student singer Greg Fletcher took the initiative and the band struck up without a conductor. The Four Day Festival , subtitled 'Big Band Masters of the 21st Century' was underway!

The Festival's underlying design seeks to bring to the audience the sounds of Big Band leaders who compose and arrange their own music using bands under their own baton, with a sub-theme that notes LA-based music from before the swing era to the sounds of today.

Joined, after about 20 minutes, by their leader Bruce Babad, the Fullerton band demonstrated their familiarity with the whole gamut open to them. Bruce and singer Greg soon had the audience responding as they recalled Cab Calloway's 'Hi-Di-Hi-Di-Hi' and then, with some talented section work from everybody in this high class College Band carried jazz forward through the swing era , bebop  and especially enjoying a new Kenton Medley titled Kenton Kollage. I also enjoyed their take on a big band version of Cherokee - their closer at Monterey where they recently won a major award. They had apparently learned from that previous experience - judge Jeff Hamilton having suggested that the tempo had been set ' a little too fast for the band members'. Not so on this occasion where almost any band leader would be ready to sign up the whole crew for a coast to coast tour. In summary, a fun set with a lot of smiling, hard rehearsal work evident and some real talent on show.

Age-wise. the next band up was at the other end of the spectrum but none the worse for that. 

David Angel, who I mentioned here earlier this year when he appeared at the Lighthouse with his 'Saxtet', (photos on my Gallery at brought his "Big Band" along - with an instrumentation unlike any Big Band that you might ordinarily envisage. The line-up has 5 reed players - each doubling on three instruments or more and a second line with a trombone, French horn, cornet, flugelhorn and tuba. A piano-less guitar-bass-drums rhythm section completes the ensemble.

David's arrangements, sometimes involving instrument doubling within the same phrase, are delightful.

David draws on themes from established composers of any era - with a special fondness for Ellington - as well as his own originals.

Some songs are arranged to allow a lot of solo space while others are built around features for the sound of one instrument.

I particularly enjoyed Stephanie O'Keefe's French horn feature on "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing", a romping 'Rangoon Express' with solo space for several and "Wild Strawberries" recalling a drive when David felt inspired by an expanse of strawberries  - you could almost taste them. Interesting brass combinations abounded in this music, as well as those Angel-saxes. 

The leader joined in on tenor sax for the final solos-all-round 'Alright' .

A few words about this years sound. Miking of every instrument continues, with mixed results. As the day went on I thought things improved, while others said the sound was 'better further back'. The vocal mike was indistinct early in the day and there remains a problem of failing to identify soloists until mid-chorus.  The huge 'stadium-rock' speakers have given way to smaller stacks but are still very loud for the front rows. There was quite a lot of sound technician activity - rushing about plugging and unplugging things for most of the day.

Sound in the Meridian Room for the panel discussion was a different issue. 

There were three people on stage for 'Panel 1 - Jazz Composer's Workshop 1'.  Larry Hathaway moderated - for the 27th year in LAJI's history of these events - with Mike Barone and Roger Neumann sharing their ideas. David Angel, I understand, had to leave for a flight to Europe, although scheduled to take part.

Mike and Roger both outlined their own histories in becoming arranger/composers and developing their own bands. They also shared their respective histories from early days in Iowa, or wherever,  various musical experiences and forks in the road  and both eventually settling in the LA area. They also both cited Bill Holman's work as an early inspiration in their arranging.

It  was a pity that, despite six or more mikes arranged on the panel table , no mike was made available for audience contributions and dialogue with the audience was difficult. The panel discussion attracted almost a full house as did the following movie session.

Ken Poston had, as usual put together a collection of clips from the LAJI archives, this time with a theme " The Swing Era in Los Angeles". Most of the early clips involved variations of the Les Hite band - occasionally fronted by a young Lionel Hampton or Louis Armstrong in the 1920's and 1930's. There were also clips involving Spud Murphy as leader and later offerings showing Benny Carter and Bobby Sherwood in the 1940's. One clip showed the earliest Stan Kenton band - even pre- Howard Rumsey!  Bobby Sherwood's nephew Carl Saunders, was among the audience. 

Mike Barone's set gave opportunity to hear some examples of things he had mentioned earlier. His own trombone background shoed through in his arrangement of 'Birdland', also saxes doubling  and flugelhorn doubling in other arrangements.

Mike's fondness for less common themes showed in his powerful version of 'his pal Rimsky's' Flight of the Bumblebee, and in a re-arrangement dedicated to Sweet Georgia Brown's sister - "Sour Sally". The set featured outstanding solos by several band members , with Bob Summers frequently popping up to surprise and delight. A new arrangement of "Sheik of Araby'", which appears on the band's latest (9th ?) album caught my ear among several others. The closer was the Limehouse-Blues-based 'Limes Away).

Top billing for the day - with two sets in the evening was "Roger Neumann's Rather Large Band". Dress for the night had been defined as 'bright colours' and Scott Whitfield was deemed to be 'best dressed'. Scott was one of several arranger/composer/ bandleaders in Roger's band who, but for the grace of Ken, might have also been on show with their bands - others included Alex Budman on tenor sax and Geoff Stradling on piano.

This aggregations of some of LA's finest was supplemented by two short sets of Madeline Vergari singing not only her husband's arrangements but some others from her repertoire. The band was also notable for having a female member in every section.

Roger's arranging/composing work history enabled him to draw on material written for Buddy Rich, Ray Charles, Ray Anthony and many others, as well as some contributed by earlier members of Roger's long-established (1974 ?) band. 
There was a lot of creativity in the music - fancy A-Train in 6/4 ? - or a tuba/piccolo feature using Tadd Dameron's 'Good Bait' ?

The band had a great laid-back feel in several blues-based compositions such as EZ-chair from a former bass-player and current bass player Kirk Smith taking an extended bass walk to give the whole band solo opportunity ....

Charlie Parker would have been flattered to hear 'Au Prive' in a setting where all the saxes paid tribute as well as the brass sections.

Jamie Havorka was impressive leading the trumpets and Matt Witek, who I had not previously heard with a big band, drove everything strongly. The future of Big Band music is in good hands.

Altogether an entertaining set with Madeleine adding a lot of zest, fun and jazz feel in her contributions....”

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comments here. Thank you.