Saturday, May 25, 2013

Los Angeles Jazz Institute, Day Two, 5.24.2013 - “Swingin’ On A Riff: Big Band Masters of the 21st Century.”

Visiting from Southampton, England, Gordon Sapsed continues his reporting on the Los Angeles Jazz Institute’s 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, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The second day of the LA Jazz Institute's 'Swingin' on a Riff' events began with a Film show hour - "Central Avenue Breakdown".

As with the previous day's film show this attracted about 150 attendees ( my estimate) from the 200 plus that had attended the final session the previous day.

Comprising at least 20 separate clips the show principally had footage from the 1940's. Ken Poston, in his introduction said how Central Avenue was at that time a very lively area for jazz flavoured entertainment - although little was reported in the LA Times of the day. The jazz scene in the area had existed from the 1920's with performers such as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Jelly Roll Morton , Kid Ory and others. Later developments had the Nat 'King' Cole Trio, Duke Ellington's band, visits from Louis Armstrong and others and local black bands - as shown previously. For this show, footage was of these artists but from non-LA sources in some cases. Early 'Modern' jazz players shown included Hampton Hawes, Buddy Collette and Lucky Thompson. There was also film of jazz players performing with Johnny Otis and T-Bone Walker from early TV shows.

First band up in the main room was the UCLA Jazz Orchestra who, like their rivals the Fullerton Jazz Orchestra the day previously, lacked a leader when show-time came and didn't get started until 15 minutes later when Charley Harrison appeared to conduct them.

Their 36 minute set comprised Kim Richmond's arrangement of 'Lady Bird', 'Lion and The Lamb' , Bob Mintzer's arrangement of 'Dolphin Dance', A beatiful piano feature built around 'Young and Foolish', and a very-professionally performed arrangement of Bill Russo's 23 degrees North 82 degrees West from the Kenton band book.

Everything the band played seemed faultless, with effective tone shadings and confident playing throughout. The solos offered were mostly outstanding - again showing a great deal of rehearsal and effort as well as high technical ability. 

After lunch it was the turn of Steve Huffsteter's Big Band which included a further set of LA's finest - Kim Richmond , Doug Webb and Alex Budman among the saxes, Scott Whitfield and Jack Redmond among the trombones and Pete De Siena with Mark Lewis among the trumpets. Charlie Ferguson, a highly rated young star, was at the piano. 

Steve Huffsteter, as he explained in the later panel discussion, has been writing music since he was about 12 years old and his band book is mostly his own compositions plus some arrangements of standards.

He told how a conversation with Dizzy Gillespie about the inappropriate use of the E natural note in a G7 chord inspired him to write "Dizz-Ception" , a piece dependent on that chord usage as an exception to the rule! He is having difficulty with the title for another piece temporarily named 'Nostalgia' - a name he thinks inappropriate. 

Characterised by careful attention to detail and played with precision, Steve's work is that of a musical craftsman and was played by players happy to be part of it and enjoying the experience.

The whole flavour of this festival with bandleaders participating in presenting music which they have created and personally written down ( or typed) is very evident in the way it comes over. Steve's band was one such.

Other pieces played were 'Rizzle (?) - 'every big band has to have a Rhythm Changes chart - this one of the fast and furious variety and Steve's 'hit' "Night Walk" - which he said yielded over $40 in royalties .....

Alone Together was re-clad as "Joint Tenacy" - an opportunity for trumpet duetting with Mark Lewis and `Steve' - who acknowledges how difficult it is for trumpet soloists in a trumpet leader's band. In saying that he paid tribute to the recent Mike Vax tour, where Steve was a sideman.

A driving original 'Waltz and Battery' ended the set.

The 'Composers Workshop' Panel discussion involved the day's three leaders Steve, Gary Urwin and Alan Broadbent. The discussion was moderated by Ken Borgers. This hour was characterised by all three panelists being especially revelatory about their early musical influences and experiences. Gary Urwin told of his move from rock guitar to arranging and both Steve and Alan spoke of music from childhood out in the boon-docks to the later music scene in the centre of the action.

Gary Urwin, who, usefully, has a Law degree as well as his musical talents, has a 'business manager' (sitting in the front row) who helps him bring together the A-list talent for his big band, who took the stage late afternoon for an hour. With three albums already available and a fourth on the way the band can be heard on radio and recordings although they rarely appear live.

Featured soloists throughout the set were Pete Christlieb, Carl Saunders and pianist Christian Jacob, with Bill Watrous as a special guest - not playing in the trombone section.

Bill Watrous, prior to his contribution, took the unusual step of paying tribute to Charlie Loper, who WAS in the trombone section , saying ' Charlie may be embarrassed to hear this but I regard him as the greatest trombone player I have ever heard in my life'.

(Charlie, as predicted, was embarrassed while the band and audience applauded.)

Gary Urwin's charts, which mostly draw on The Great American Songbook or jazz standards, undoubtedly take a new approach, with ' a lot going on' and particular attention to the dynamics and multi-instrumental usage. He also draws widely for material (e.g. the Disney 'Beauty and the Beast') . Titles included My Foolish Heart, Joy Spring, Waltz for Debbie, and the bossa-nova Gentle Rain. An up-tempo, 'more PC', re-working of 'Girl Talk' as 'Women's Conversation' has apparently been an unexpected radio hit for the band. 

I also enjoyed Carl Saunders' original tribute to Bob Florence "Dear Mr. Florence" and the bebop closer 'Shaw 'nuff'.

As previously the composer-writer's presence to get tempos exact and offer a nudge here and a twist there made a difference, but even these A class players, familiar with the charts, had to sit forward in their seats most of the time .... 

The evening session brought two sets from "The Alan Broadbent Big Band' - an aggregation created for this Festival.

Alan opened by saying how he had not regularly written music for a big band since his days with Woody Herman in the late 1950's. He also said that his set of original compositions had grown at about 1 a year in the last 5 decades, but a dozen of them would feature tonight.

In recent times he had arranged his material for the Phil Norman Tentet and he had 'fattened up' those charts, and also added some charts originally written for Woody to build the two sets on offer.

The piano had been moved to centre stage to allow Alan to play as part of the band. For some numbers he played an unaccompanied intro - as he often does with his trio, whilst in others he had written parts within the score or occasional solos.

Based as he now is, on the East Coast, this was a coming-together for Alan with these players and new charts, although he had played with many of the players in earlier days. There was a lot of close attention, but also a lot of smiling and nodding and congratulation as the sets developed. They enjoyed being part of what felt like a very special occasion. 

Alan was clearly delighted with this opportunity to , as he said, 'present my work to these guys - to add their personal touches and then share the whole thing with you - the audience'. The audience response both in applause, those standing ovations and the discussions afterwards was, as I heard it, all very favourable and in some instances almost awestruck ...

An abundance of impressive solos from the band- notably Doug Webb and Jerry Pinter on tenors, Bruce Babad on alto, Scott Whitfield and Alan Kaplan on trombones and Carl Saunders and Jeff Bunnell on trumpets as well as Alan's long-time associate Putter Smith on bass and Bernie Dressel at the drums. The other band members also soloed occasionally and played crucial parts in the detailed arrangement. Alan Broadbent charts often have bebop running through them and his fondness for that genre is mixed with a lot of emotion, be it happiness, grandeur or simply 'landscape'
One original 'A long white cloud' actually took us on a boat across the South Pacific in that Maori-inspired vision - broad grandeur, yet jazz flair.

Other Broadbent tunes included Sweet' Pea ( for Billy Strayhorn), 'Love in Silent Amber ( an original for Woody's book), Chris Craft (combining half a dozen Bird themes), and Woody 'n Me ( again for Woody)

In the second set Glen Berger was the key soloist for 'Don't Ask Why' ( Alan's memorial for Irene Kral), and the whole band excelled in 'America The Beautiful' ( Alan said ' every arranger has had a go at that') .

The closer was 'Sonny Step' with 'Journey Home' as an encore, both former trio offerings enlarged for this Big Band opportunity.

Altogether a memorable day, with an attendance, including musicians and musical associates, much closer to a full house.”

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