Sunday, May 26, 2013

Los Angeles Jazz Institute, Day Three, 5.25.2013 - “Swingin’ On A Riff: Big Band Masters of the 21st Century.”

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

“I must firstly apologise for my error yesterday in implying that the USC band had started their set late - whereas they were not even invited this year..... The honour of opening the Festival this time was with the Fullerton College Band - who turned up on time but minus their leader.

I'd have to say that Bruce Babad (their leader) has more than compensated since with his contributions to the Festival as well as joy he has brought me in the past with his playing. I was delighted to hear that he is planning to record a second Paul Desmond Tribute album later this year - no surprise really following the success of his earlier one.

Saturday morning's LAJI programme opened at 
11 am with a film show - this time focused on jazz related clips from the 1950's . With arranger/composers as the theme, the first film clips showed Kenton's band of that period playing 'I Feel Pretty' and 'Maria' - from the Ed Sullivan show. Interesting was a glimpse of young Carl Saunders wrestling with a mellophonium.

Later clips showed Andre Previn playing with Bobby Darin, a Nat Cole rendering of a song written by Pete Rugolo and footage from Johnny Mandel's score for 'I Want to Live' plus the jazz club scenes. Woody's band was represented in several clips including a rendering of Bill Holman's arrangement of "After You've Gone ".

In the Workshop discussion later in the day Bill Holman said how it took him about two weeks to complete that arrangement as relevant 'crazy ideas' emerged daily to incorporate in the score. He was relieved and delighted that Woody liked it and , in retrospect, he feels it was something special in his career. Woody said 'Thank you for sharing your thoughts with the band'.

The Workshop/ Panel discussion, moderated by Kirk Silsbee was, I thought, very effective, concentrating as it did on HOW arrangers work. The 'Panelists' were Bill Mathieu, Bill Holman and Lou Rovner - each very different in their musical style, how they trained and how they tackle their work.

Before the panel started we had a chance to hear Lou Rovner's work - which many of us had never heard before - although every member of his 10 piece "Small Big Band" was a familiar face to LAJI audiences.

His music was, for me and for many others, a total revelation and an absolute delight! As they say - well worth the price of admission if we had to go home now....
His music, in retrospect, is perhaps best heard when you know a little about him - but don't bother to go to record shops. His only recordings are on his website - but downloadable free. (I haven't tried it yet) . The website is

He grew up in
Chicago, but left town at 17 and , among other things, spent a year at Berklee and also qualified to become a practising psychologist.

He claims to have no musical style of his own , but seeks to write things which are different to things he has written previously ... I can only say that every instrumentalist in the band plays a role in everything - often doubling. Each player gets features but none have a single role. The repertoire is totally mixed and this list gives you no idea how it sounds. Take, for example Neal Hefti's "L'il Darlin'". Lou decided to arrange that but use none of it and instead carry that mood into "It's Only a Paper Moon", or , strictly speaking, a series of short vignettes related to 'Paper Moon', with an overall mood of 'L'il Darlin'. - Still with me?

This really WAS a set where the musicians had fun, but maintained their competence whilst smiling and laughing.

Totally delightful music - with an impression that they made it all up as they went along - another of Lou's goals ...

The Lou Rovner set list was : Hi Fly, Body & Soul (at a fast tempo), Take Me Out To The Ballgame, 'It's Only a Paper Moon' - and 'Milestones'.

Interestingly, one theme of the Worksop/Panel discussion was 'writing so that it seems they are making it up'. All three panelists cited that as a worthwhile goal, although all three also found such a quality in some classical writing from Mozart and even Beethoven ...

All three also spoke of having in the past felt, on hearing something inspirational that 'I could write that' - but then, with pencil and paper in hand found that they couldn't!

Regarding personal style, Bill Mathieu told of years of studying other American composers, Europeans and even music from Eastern cultures, before realising - sometime after age 50 that he was writing stuff which was peculiarly his own. Bill Holman reported no such 'nirvana' or 'serendipity', but recalls , quite early in his career, being told that people could recognise his style.

Lou, as said above, seeks to 'not sound the same twice' ( despite having spent some years writing for shows and acts in Vegas).

Both Lou and Bill Holman spoke of a personal challenge, perhaps imagined, that they feel to keep their top-calibre players interested in coming to unpaid rehearsals !
Bill Holman also spoke of an almost unconscious goal, derived from his playing background to write things that are playable. Bill Mathieu said he tries to stay away from the piano as long as possible 'To not limit what I'm writing to the abilities I have as a pianist'. He recommends to students not to sit close to the piano. Instead 'you must get up to go and check things'.

A very worthwhile Workshop, I thought.

The afternoon closed with a romping set from Ton Kubis's Band - "excuse us rushing - some of these guys have real jobs tonight".

Several top LA players appeared for the first time this weekend in Tom's Band - Sal Lozano, Andy Martin,
Wayne `Bergeron and such. Within the Festival's theme of composer/arranger bandleaders it was a typical Kubis set - a lot of swing, a lot of energy, a lot of laughing and great music. Herman sold out of the band's new CD afterwards and 'could have sold 50 more copies'.

If the titles matter (or are even correct ) : "Uptown Blues", "Hey Georgia" ( a Georgia Brown variant), In a Mellow Tone, "Hi 5's ('- and a good chance of
Wayne ???), Alone Together, Some of these Days ( rendered for dancers in alternate styles), Triste (a feature for guitarist Mike Higgins), Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home.
Some audience members noted the band's upcoming monthly date in
Huntington Beach on Monday - they can't get enough of this band ... 

I'll bring you notes on the BIll Russo and Bill Holman concerts in a later post and some photos - it's a very full day here today with an 8.30 a.m. start .

Saturday evening brought 'The Music of Bill Russo' , with the 'Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra' ( an aggregation put together by LAJI), directed by Bill Mathieu. Bill had, in the Workshop discussion said how significant this concert was for him, bearing in mind his long association with Bill Russo, who had also been his tutor and mentor ('gaps in age get smaller as you get older').

The band once more introduced faces not seen earlier in this Festival - with the opening number 'Over The Rainbow' featuring one such, Eric Jorgensen on trombone. This was followed by Russo's arrangement of 'Autumn in New York' featuring Ron King and The former Frank Rosolino feature for the Kenton Orchestra  'Frank Speaking' , with George McMullen taking the solo part.

'Dusk' was followed by "Portrait of Conte Candoli", with Bob Summers in the Candoli role. There continued a mix of Russo compositions and arrangement for the Kenton Orchestra alternated with material issued under his own name in later years :
'I've Got You Under My Skin', Fascinating Rhythm', Sophisticated Lady' (featuring Bruce Babad on alto), and then something different. That was Bill Mathieu's own 'audition piece' for the Stan Kenton Library "Silhouette" - which had been played here a couple of years ago in Bill Mathieu's own concert but was chosen by Bill on this occasion to highlight his own dedication to the Russo arranging influence and style.

The remaining pieces were all Russo's work - 'You and the Night and the Music', Shadow Waltz ( a surprise for many) and perhaps the inevitable closer '23 degrees North 82 Degrees West'- which had bravely (and beautifully) been offered by the Fullerton College student band on the first morning, in Bob Curnow's Kenton Kollage.

For my personal taste Bill Russo's work, on this showing under Bill Mathieu's guidance, moved up in my estimation. I found it lighter and more 'swinging' than I remembered it. I think the presentation and success owed a lot to Bill Mathieu's fondness and care.

Top of the Bill for Saturday Night was Bill Holman's Band, which again brought new faces and revealed an absence of some faces formerly in that band. At one stage, in introducing the players Bill said "Yes - they really are old enough". - 

Age was not really the issue  - the audience were, I'm sure potentially more concerned about competence. But they needed to have no fears - the newcomers coped with everything in front of them perfectly and then added solos that were sometimes perhaps beyond the limits of their predecessors, both in technical skill and creativity.

As Kim Richmond said next day in the Workshop discussion -"There are really top class talented jazz players these days in every American City and here in LA about 20 for every top job on every instrument.”

Bill Holman's Band still had veterans like Billy Kerr, Bob Efford, Jack Redmond Carl Saunders , Ron Stout and Bob Summers but alongside them drummer Jake Reid, bassist Alex Frank and even piano player Christian Jacob were among new faces to many of the audience - at least in this band.

Some of the music was more familiar, but some also very new to the band book. They opened with 'No Joy in Mudville' - an opportunity for several newcomers to stretch out and then Woodrow, St Thomas and a feature for Carl Saunders 'Sweet Spot', "Zoot and Al" gave Doug Webb and Rickey Woodard a chance to extend themselves and Bruce Babad did a superb job with 'Lover Man". Bill Holman confessed to being fascinated by the notion of "Zamboni" ( as was Snoopy !) and used it to real workout the whole band - Bob Summers and Doug Webb excelling.
The encore was drawn from the Band's Thelonius Monk repertoire "Bemsha Swing".
My overall impression of the band this time was that it is a transition period with new players and new material 'bedding in'. Very enjoyable - but different and hinting at a lot to come ....

and so to tomorrow - our final day of this Festival.

Gordon Sapsed