Monday, January 21, 2019

La Fiesta - Mike Barone Big Band

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


The first thing that comes to mind when I listen to Mike Barone’s big band arrangements is swinging textures [sonority is another word for textures].

By this I mean the overall sound of the music which is the first thing that hits us when we hear its melodic, harmonic and rhythmic components all blended together to form the texture or sonorty that is the music.

Whatever the texture, Mike’s music always swings. By way of comparison, Maria Schneider’s big band orchestrations have their own unique sonorites, but they don’t always swing.

Watching a video of the band playing through Mike’s charts [arrangements], you can see [and hear] a musical phrase being played by the first and fifth trumpets in combination with the second trombone and first alto and baritone sax. But then, the next phrase might involve a different combination of instruments either playing in unison or in harmony with one another.

But whatever the combination that Mike employs to create the sound of his arrangement, the music is constantly moving; metronomically progressing - in another words - swinging.

Countermelodies, arranged solo and shout choruses played in unison or harmonized, dynamics, unique voicings, interludes, riffs, key changes, tempo changes, interspersed solos, plenty of drum kicks and licks - it’s all here - masterfully and tastefully implemented by a superior composer-arranger who - like his mentor Bill Holman - should be considered a living national treasure.

By way of background, Mike Barone has had big bands on and off for the past 50 years. The first that gained notoriety performed at the world famous "Donte's Jazz Club" in North Hollywood CA every Wed. night from 1967 through 1969. Many jazz greats came through that band like Med Flory, Tom Scott, Bill Perkins and Mike Wofford. Even Ernie Watts and Joe Sample played in the band at times. The following years saw Mike write or perform with Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Johnny Hartman, Phil Collins, Dizzy Gillespie, Lalo Schifrin, Gerald Wilson, The Tonight Show Band, Quincy Jones, Hank Mancini, John Williams, Bill Conti, Maynard Ferguson, Oliver Nelson, Tower Of Power, Super Sax, Shelly Manne, Trombones Unlimited with Frank Rosolino, Louie Bellson, the Grammy's and the Academy Awards from 1987 thru 2005. Mike also did many TV shows and movies as well as composing and arranging over 100 stage band charts for schools.   The band at this time is made up of outstanding younger players and older "ringers" for a terrific combination and his greatest band ever. La Fiesta is the eighth album of the band released by Rhubarb Recordings.”

While reading through Steve Randisi’s interview with Mike in the September 2006 edition of Cadence Magazine, one gets the impression that Mike reformed his first big band by accident after putting his first one together almost 50 years ago:

S.R.: How did you happen to put a new band together, after returning to LA in 1997?

M.B.: I didn't come back to LA for that reason. I used to joke that when I turned 60, I'd come back to L.A. before everybody I know dies! I don't remember how I started to rehearse again, but Bill Perkins use to encourage me. Bill was a great saxophone player who died about a year ago [2003]. And then I found that people basically remembered me for my band. They'd say. "Mike, how's your band?" And I hadn't had a band in thirty years! What band?! Then, when I started rehearsing. I realized that today's players are better, especially the younger ones. They might not be the greatest Jazz players, but they could read my charts so much better - and fast So I just kept doing it week after week and now it's gotten to the point where it's really something good. We've gotten gigs around town - the Jazz Bakery, Clancey's, and Ken Poston puts productions together he does a lot of the Stan Kenton rehash type things. I needed to get a CD out.[Live at Donte’s 1968] You can't have a record out there that's thirty years old. So I began to work on that.”

From there it just seems like Mike was in the right place at the right time. For example his association with Johnny Carson, Doc Severinsen and The Tonight Show Band happened this way:

S.R.: How did you happen you hook up with Doc Severinsen and "The Tonight Show?"
M.B.: I had gotten a cal! from Louie Bellson. I used to work for Louie (circa 1961) and that was the first good gig that I had. He was married to Pearl Bailey, and I had done six weeks with her along with two bus loads of dancers and singers. I had gotten the gig with Louie through someone who had recommended me. and I later wrote something for one of Louie's albums. Evidently Doc must have been at the recording session and he asked Louie who had written the chart. When Louie told him it was me, Doc said. "Have him send me some charts." So I wrote five two-page charts. Short ones. They had to be short because they don't get played on the air too long. I knew they were going to be used for television where there isn't that much time. You only get to hear a few bars.”

And serendipity was also in play when Mike moved on to do work on the Academy Awards TV show:

“S.R.: How did you gel the Academy Awards gig?
M.B.: ..., that has to do with Bill Conti. I have something on my wall that goes back to 1987 regarding that show. And when Conti gets the show, I usually get something to write. In the last few years it's gotten even better because he's given me nicer things to do. There's about three of us that do the main work, but you'll see about ten or fifteen credits on there because he's used other people's charts. Maybe just a few bars or something. The thing to remember with the Academy Awards is that you don't play original music; it's all film music. In other words, it has to be music from movies. No television stuffl Some guys would write the eight bar play-ons, and I would do some of those, too. And there's the production numbers for the performers who are on the show. I've gotten to write the medleys where band numbers are needed. They usually don't get on the air, but they are neat things. They're a lot of work and they pay a lot of money. I did one for Ennio Morricone who started with spaghetti westerns and went on to write more music for the movies than anybody else. And he's still going. I did one on Hank Mancini. too. I've done different things where I get to write a real ballsy band number; not like the television garbage that you hear. It ends up like a Jazz piece done by my band, only with strings. So it's turned into something really good, as far as the music is concerned. It's not fluffy sh**. Bill likes it and the producers like it. It's nothing far out, but still a far cry from what used to be done.”

With all this going on in his career, is it any wonder then that Mike’s big band has a waiting list of musicians who want to perform in it? I mean, the guy is a pro’s pro, not to mention a vanishing breed, as calls for the kind of skills he has developed over the years are sadly not in great demand these days.

Of the eleven tracks on La Fiesta, four are Mike’s original compositions and the rest are a smattering of Jazz standards, Great American Songbook and one adaptation from the Classical music repertoire.

Each displays Mike’s unique ability to get inside a song or a tune and find an interesting way to create an arrangement around it. With the possible exception of the four originals, you’ve probably heard this music before but you’ve never heard it orchestrated in this manner.

Like his mentor, Bill Holman, Mike’s approach in developing his arrangements is “horizontal” that is to say linear; they progress from one stage to another in a single, series of steps. To think of it another way, it is a sequential, linear narrative.

Mike’s stuff pulsates forward. He weaves other elements of the arrangement into his main statement, but everything he does in his charts creates momentum. The music pops with a kinetic energy that is almost palpable.

Another impression of Mike’s music is that is sounds effortless - unforced - it just flows. Mike knows the possibilities, he knows what works singularly or in combination, so there no strain to the sounds he creates in his arrangements.

When it’s time for a soloist, a tension-and-release platform within the chart literally launches the player into his solo. It’s all very dramatic as he sets things up in such a way so as to call attention to the featured performer.

Mike concludes his interview with Steve Randisi with the following statement:

“My feeling is, if you're going to do something, do it right, or as best you can. You might not make a ton of money, but so what? Like Ernie Watts says, "Just keep doin' what you're doin’ ‘till you drop." They'll be a certain percentage of people who will like what you're doing and you'll survive. But don't try to fit in. I was lost for about ten years, going through the whole "Jesus Christ Superstar" era and all the Rock crap. I totally lost the Jazz thing. Then, for about two years. I found myself writing Country and Western songs. Can you imagine that? You can't do what somebody else does. You have to be yourself and do what you do. And if you want to be successful in Jazz - buy property!”

I, for one, am certainly happy that Mike found his way through the morass of commercialism and re-dedicated himself to big band Jazz. He is a repository of big band Jazz arranging experience and skills and the half century over which he accumulated them will never come again.

The proof of this assertion is in the eleven charts that comprise La Fiesta.

La Fiesta CDs and downloads are available at and digital downloads are available at iTunes &

Mike Barone and Mike Barone Big Band are both on Facebook and you can also locate more information about Mike at
and via his YouTube channel -

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