The final session at the L.A. Jazz Institute’s Jazz West Coast 3 festival was an event so rare that musicians and attendees were buzzing about it from the moment they arrived. It was the appearance of Johnny Mandel leading a big band in a concert of his compositions and arrangements. Mandel has been a hero of musicians since the late forties, more than fifteen years before “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “Emily” and other pieces made him one of the few writers of quality songs to become a popular success in the second half of the twentieth century.
Although he was being honored as a legend of the west, Mandel’s fame is worldwide. His jazz charts for Artie Shaw, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, Chet Baker, Hoagy Carmichael, Buddy Rich and Gerry Mulligan are imperishable goods, gems of the repertoire. With Mulligan, Bill Holman, Thad Jones, Neal Hefti, Gerald Wilson, Bob Brookmeyer and Al Cohn, he is one of the icons of jazz writing in the fifties, perhaps the last golden age of that demanding craft. His scoring for films and his arranging for singers (Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Shirley Horn, Anita O’Day, Mel Torme, Andy Williams, Natalie Cole, Diana Krall) constitute a gold standard for the field. His oldest works are as fresh as this morning.
Leading a band of seventeen hand-picked musicians, Mandel gave the audience “Keester Parade,” “Low Life,” three pieces from his score for the motion picture “I Want To Live, his famous arrangement of Tiny Kahn’s “TNT,” “Not Really the Blues,” the theme from M*A*S*H* and Kim Richmond’s kaleidoscopic treatment of Mandel’s “Seascape.” There were also performances of “Emily” and “The Shadow of Your Smile” and guest appearances by Pinky Winters and Bob Efford. Ms. Winters sang Dave Frishberg’s lyrics to Mandel’s “You Are There,” accompanied by only the composer at the piano. Together, without embellishment, they created magic, something at which this masterly singer has excelled for many years to recognition that comes nowhere near her level of artistry. Efford, best known as a baritone saxophonist, played the clarinet roles of Artie Shaw and Woody Herman in Mandel arrangements.
It was obvious that each member of the band was thrilled and flattered to be asked to play for Mandel. Collectively and as soloists, they performed at a fine edge of inspiration. Under his minimal but firm conducting, the horn sections were perfection in their reproduction of the unity, dynamics and rhythmic jazz essences of the writing. As for soloists, singling out a few would be to ignore the rest without justification. The players are listed below.
At seventy-nine, Mandel is a slight man with a low voice and a calm manner. He speaks quietly and regards a conversation partner with frank interest. Directing the band, he sometimes turns and watches the audience with the same intense curiosity. One of the most successful and admired musicians of his time, he exhibits no smidgen of ego. “The thing about John,” one of his friends said, “Is that he doesn’t know he’s Johnny Mandel. He thinks he’s just one of the guys.” The guys may think that, too, but they revere Mandel. They play for him with love, enthusiasm and no reservations of the kind that sidemen often have about leaders. He has that in common with Holman. I have never heard a player utter a disrespectful remark about either.
Mandel found the Jazz West Coast 3 experience rewarding enough that he is thinking of getting a book of arrangements together, organizing a band and playing a few gigs. That would be something to look forward to.
The band playing the compositions and arrangements of Johnny Mandel, October 2, 2005:
Reeds: Kim Richmond, Lanny Morgan, Tom Peterson, Doug Webb, Bob Carr
Trombones: Dave Ryan, Andy Martin, Scott Whitfield, Bryant Byers
Trumpets: Roger Ingram, Bobby Shew, Carl Saunders, Ron Stout
Piano: Bill Mays
Bass: Chris Conner
Guitar: John Pisano
Drums: Kevin Kanner
Guests: Bob Efford, clarinet; Pinky Winters, vocal