Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Saluting Henry Mancini's immense musical legacy

If you watched television, went to the movies or listened to the radio in the 1960s, '70s or '80s, the music of composer Henry Mancini was everywhere. He left a stunning legacy of movie scores and TV theme music, which the Orlando Jazz Orchestra explored and celebrated on Monday, February 13 in its first Charlotte County Jazz Society appearance.

Mancini, who was both prolific and versatile throughout his five-decade career, died in 1994 at age 70. He won four Oscars, one Golden Globe and 20 Grammy Awards, plus a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, for the most memorable of his hundreds of compositions.

Greg Parnell
Musical director Greg Parnell brought an 11-member version of his fine Central Florida-based repertory ensemble. Thanks to crafty, swinging arrangements for its six horn players, it often sounded like a robust big band.

For the several hundred listeners at the Charlotte Performing Arts Center in Punta Gorda FL, this was a trip down a musical Memory Lane, with Parnell interspersing bits of historical perspective and anecdotes as the band explored Mancini's elegant melodies.

Justin Diaz, Charlie Bertini
The band included David MacKenzie on alto sax and clarinet, Rex Wertz on tenor sax, Fil Lorenz on baritone sax, Charlie Bertini and Justin Diaz on trumpet, Clay Lucovich on trombone, Judi Glover on piano, Steve Luciano on guitar, Greg Zabel on bass, and the drummer's wife, Amy Parnell, adding vocals on six tunes.

They opened with an early composition "BT Jump." Mancini, then a journeyman pianist, arranger and composer wrote it for the Tex Beneke Orchestra, which was carrying on the Glenn Miller big band tradition. (Parnell was the revived Glenn Miller Orchestra's drummer and road manager for many years). They followed with "Too Little Time," the love theme from 1954's film The Glenn Miller Story. 

Amy Parnell
Steve Luciano, Greg Zabel
Two pieces followed from the late 1950s TV private detective series Peter Gunn: "Brothers Go to Mothers" and "Dreamsville." Wertz and Luciano were featured as the band dug into the theme from the series Mr. Lucky, opting for a version that trombonist Phil Wilson arranged for the Buddy Rich Band.

The band's Latinized take on "Moon River," the Mancini-Johnny Mercer ballad from Breakfast at Tiffany's, featured Amy Parnell's wistful vocals and a Bertini horn solo. That in turn set up a swinging romp through "The Days of Wine and Roses" that energized the room. Mancini won Grammys and Academy Awards for both. 

David MacKenzie

Other fine moments included MacKenzie's teasing clarinet solo on "Baby Elephant Walk" from the 1962 film Hatari, and the themes from two editions of The Pink Panther, with Lorenz turning in a fine baritone solo on "A Shot in the Dark."

The OJO's version of "The Sweetheart Tree" from The Great Race featured beautiful interplay between Amy Parnell and Glover, and then MacKenzie's answering alto sax solo. Shifting gears from soundtrack and TV theme music, the band dug into "Cheers!," a hard-driving big band instrumental that Mancini recorded in 1963 on his Uniquely Mancini album.

Judi Glover
Saving the best for last, the band wrapped up the evening with four standouts. They included Glover's poignant extended piano solo on "Two For the Road" and a searing Latinized take on "It Had Better Be Tonight" from The Pink Panther original movie with frisky vocals, as well as an extended drum feature for the leader. 

Then came another Glover feature on Mancini's arrangement of Nino Rota's “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet” (also known as “A Time For Us”). Mancini's recorded version resulted in his only No. 1 hit single during the rock ‘n’ roll era, spending two weeks atop Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 in the summer of 1969.

The Orlando Jazz Orchestra finished on a high note, lots of them actually, with one of Mancini's first TV music hits, "Peter Gunn Theme." 

The Lemon Bay High School jazz ensemble, the Jazz Rays, performed a varied pre-concert set that included several New Orleans classics, some Miles Davis, and closed with the Jaco Pastorius-Bireli Lagrene version of the Pee Wee Ellis composition "The Chicken."

Orlando Jazz Orchestra

Lemon Bay High School's Jazz Rays

Monday, February 13, 2023

Celebrating a giant legacy

Friends, fans and fellow musicians from near and far gathered in Naples FL on Sunday, February 12 to celebrate the love and life of trumpeter Dan Miller. He died suddenly on August 19 at age 54 but left a giant legacy. A legacy of phenomenal trumpet artistry, an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz, renown as a skilled and passionate educator, and a life filled with joy and a genuine kindness to everyone he met.

Dan Miller
Those traits were underscored time and again during the two and a half-hour celebration at North Naples Church. The program included a revolving cast of bands, beginning with the Gulf Coast Big Band, which Dan led for 10 years, followed by blends of musicians he had worked with through the years - on the road with the Harry Connick Jr. big band, in New York, in New Orleans, and in Florida for the past 18 years.
Wendell Brunious
"Dan was the embodiment of brilliance, kindness and love for all," his longtime girlfriend, Judi Woods, told the hundreds in attendance.

All of the material on this afternoon, programmed by longtime band-mate Lew Del Gatto, consisted of Dan's favorite tunes. Trumpeters Leroy Jones and Wendell Brunious and clarinetist Caroline Brunious were there from New Orleans, with Jones capping their back-to-back appearances with "When It's Sleepy Time Down South."

Nathaniel Williford
Another group dug into one of Dan's favorite formats, a Jazz at the Philharmonic-style ballad medley. It opened with one of Dan's former students, Nathaniel Williford, playing "Tenderly;" and five tunes later, closed with Horace Silver's ballad "Peace," that featured Del Gatto, trumpeter Terumasa Hino and violinist Glenn Basham.

Lew Del Gatto, Terumasa Hino
The live performances were interspersed with video clips from 11 musicians who were unable to be there in person. They included Connick and fellow New Orleans musicians Craig Klein and Jeremy Davenport; as well as fellow trumpeters Randy Brecker, Chuck Findley and New Mexico-based Bobby Shew, who Dan treasured as a mentor. Singer Carmen Bradford's poignant clip featured her a capella version of "Danny Boy," while teen-aged pianist Brandon Goldberg, who Miller took under his wing about seven years ago, played Duke Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone."
Jeff and Preston Rupert
Later in the program, a septet of longtime Miller collaborators also performed "In a Mellow Tone." This grouping included tenor saxophonist Jeff Rupert, who heads the jazz studies program at the University of Central Florida, and his son, Preston, who was a trumpet student of Dan's since age 10.

The joyous closer was an extended take on Miles Davis's "Blues By Five," which Dan used as a first-set finale at many of his performances. 

This one had a dozen participants: pianist Roy Gerson, bassist Chuck Bergeron, drummer Jim White (in from Colorado), trumpeters Hino, Brunious, Preston Rupert and Kenny Rampton (in from New York), and tenor saxophonists Jerry Weldon (in from New York), Gerald Augustin, Jeff Rupert and Lou Califano. 

In his video remarks, Connick said Dan had been a cherished and talented member of his band and a treasured friend. "His legacy is of joy. He was this giant teddy bear of a sweetheart that we all loved so much."

Blues by Five:
Kenny Rampton, Lou Califano, Gerald Augustin, Lew Del Gatto,
Jerry Weldon, Jeff Rupert, Wendell Brunious (partially hidden),
Preston Rupert, Terumasa Hino

Friday, February 3, 2023

The tasty groove of Jazz Simpatico

After pandemic pauses and a Hurricane Ian-related cancellation last fall, the Charlotte County Jazz Society delivered the fifth edition of its informal matinee concerts on Thursday, February 2 - and it was a gem.

Bob Zottola
Trumpeter Bob Zottola performed with his Naples-based Jazz Simpatico band at the Grill at 1951 in Port Charlotte, Florida. It was billed as a trio performance with steady collaborators Stu Shelton on keyboard and Tim Ruger on drums. But it was much more, given the scope of their musicality and an unexpected guest: tenor saxophonist Len Pierro, a Philadelphia bandleader who spends winters here.

Len Pierro, Bob Zottola
Zottola moved to Florida in 2004 after decades on the New York jazz and Broadway musicals scene, including a 16-year run in the pit orchestra for Les Miserables. The leader's trumpet and flugelhorn chops belie his 86 years on the planet. His range and control of dynamics on this most demanding of instruments are marvelous. He often muted his trumpet with a purple Seagram's Crown Royal bag to dampen the horn's bright sound.
Stu Shelton

Shelton brought an interesting twist, passing up the venue's Yamaha grand piano for his own electric keyboard. He has an unusual technique, playing swinging, beautiful melodies with his right hand while delivering solid bass lines with his left. Close your eyes, and you'd swear there was a string bass player in a dark corner of the stage. 

Tim Ruger
Ruger spent years on the road with the Tony Award-winning musical The Fantastics. He delivered solid, no-frills propulsion all afternoon, adding tasty accents without any excess or bombast. This is a very good thing.

Their material shifted between The Great American Songbook and a bit of Broadway to jazz chestnuts, the latter including Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova classic "Triste." Pierro added his beautiful tenor work to half of them. Zottola also sang on four numbers: "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," "Bye Bye Blackbird,"  "I'm Old Fashioned" and a poignant version of Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time" from the 1944 musical On The Town.

Pierro, Zottola
Several instrumental choices underscored the band's creativity:

  • Their uptempo version of John Coltrane's minor blues "Mr. P.C.," written in tribute to bassist Paul Chambers, featured Pierro on tenor sax, with Shelton delivering a relentless bass line and a classic B-3 organ sound.
  • Alternating notes on their respective horns, Zottola and Pierro teased their way into the melody before turning up the heat on "Stella by Starlight."
  • A clever rearrangement of Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way" took the beautiful ballad in new directions.
  • An extended exploration of the classic tenor saxophone feature "Body and Soul," which Coleman Hawkins transformed into a jazz standard, showcased Pierro's beautifully laid-back tenor sound. He can swing hard when warranted, but never overplays.

They closed the afternoon with an extended take on "The Theme," one of Miles Davis's classic jazz heads based on the first eight bars of "I Got Rhythm." They rode with great joy over the chord changes, known in the jazz vernacular as "rhythm changes." It was the perfect summation of everything that preceded it.

Pierro, Zottola, Ruger Shelton 
Prior concerts in this occasional series featured pianist Bobby van Deusen in 2018, pianist Billy Marcus and bassist Don Mopsick in 2019, pianist Roy Gerson's trio in January 2020, and guitarist Nate Najar and singer Daniela Soledade in 2021.