Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A cool July afternoon

Silo’s is a delightful little club in the heart of downtown Napa, California, within the greater wine country. The venue seats 125, and is tucked into the historic Napa Mill, adjacent to the Napa River Inn. On Sunday afternoon, July 14, it was the perfect setting for a tribute to Vince Guaraldi, performed by a polished combo led by jazz pianist — and long-ago Guaraldi student — Larry Vuckovich.

The event was sponsored by the Napa Valley Jazz Society, whose head poobah, Bill Hart, encouraged me to bring a stack of books, feeling certain that some of that afternoon’s patrons would appreciate the opportunity to purchase a copy. Bill also asked me to say “a few words” about Vince between sets, a proposal greeted with equal enthusiasm by Larry. I promised not to overstay my welcome; after all, everybody was present to hear the music.

My wife and I arrived about 45 minutes early, at 3:15 p.m. Bill showed us to our seats, at his table and favorably placed about 10 feet from the band. (That said, there aren’t any bad seats in the house, which is the epitome of intimate.)

We were surprised to discover a full bar, but not at all surprised to see that the cocktails were cheaper than single glasses of wine (all of which were high-end, Napa-area selections). I checked in with Larry and his lovely wife, Sanna; they were holed up in a back area separated only by a curtain, from the rest of the room. I also took advantage of the opportunity to chat with bassist Seward McCain; although he and I corresponded a lot and talked on the phone several years ago, while I worked on my book about Guaraldi, we’d never actually met. In person, he’s just as engaging as he was during our interviews.

Shortly before 4 p.m., Bill Hart took the microphone and made several announcements on behalf of the Napa Jazz Society: upcoming events and other bits of business. His colleague Richard Danne already was taking pictures with an impressive-looking camera, and several of his photos are sprinkled throughout this essay. Hart then introduced me and displayed a copy of my book (thanks, Bill!), which he presented as a gift to Vuckovich. After a round of applause, Bill concluded by formally introducing Larry, who discussed his own early years, starting with his arrival in San Francisco in 1951. He recalled seeing Guaraldi as a member of Cal Tjader’s band in 1957.

“Vince had driving rhythm and soulful playing,” Vuckovich said, “and he played Latin music with great authenticity.”

Vuckovich then explained the structure of the concert, which would follow Guaraldi’s career more or less in chronological order, highlighting not only some of his original compositions, but also some of the standards he arranged and recorded in his own signature fashion. After reminding us that Guaraldi’s first trio had been with guitar and bass, Vuckovich brought McCain and guitarist Josh Workman to the stage for the opening number: Frank Loesser and Burton Lane’s “The Lady’s in Love with You,” which Guaraldi included on his first trio album.

Vuckovich opened this cover on acoustic piano, then granted Workman a generous solo on guitar. Watching Larry perform, you’re immediately struck by how much fun he’s having. For openers, he’s cute as a bug, suavely dressed and topped with a beret; most noticeably, though, he grins and smiles the whole time, conveying a sense that this is the best audience he’s ever performed for, and the best concert he’s ever given. (Clearly, he makes fans feel that way every time.)

Vuckovich, McCain and Workman took the old-style approach to this tune, handing numerous solos off to each other; McCain delivered a particularly melodic passage at one point, and then dialed back to grant Vuckovich and Workman a slick duet. It was a warm, smooth, mid-tempo arrangement: a pleasant way to start the show.

The same trio held the stage for a particularly lovely reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” which Guaraldi — with his same early trio — recorded on his second album of the same title. Vuckovich established a stronger presence on this tune, with Workman comping sweetly behind him, and McCain maintaining the beat. I’ve always thought this an achingly beautiful song, and Vuckovich’s interpretation — while definitely delivered in his own style — nonetheless held echoes of Guaraldi’s reading, all those years ago.

After a well-deserved round of applause, Larry segued to Guaraldi’s stint with the Cal Tjader Quintet, and shared a brief anecdote about a tour that brought that combo to New York’s Birdland, where they shared the bill with Dizzy Gillespie’s big bebop band. Gillespie invited Guaraldi to sit in with them every night, so the San Francisco pianist wound up playing two aggressive sets each evening. “He told me he got tired!” Vuckovich recalled.

(Indeed ... but wouldn’t you love to have been part of that audience?)

This transitional anecdote also prompted Vuckovich to bring the rest of his band to the stage: drummer Akira Tana and Latin percussionist John Santos. Vuckovich switched to an electric keyboard for what followed: a lively reading of Gillespie’s bebop classic, “Ow!,” which granted slick solos to Workman and McCain, with Santos delivering plenty of colorful Latin shading. (As the afternoon progressed, Santos definitely gave Vuckovich a run for his money, when it came to scene-stealing expressions and highly animated antics.) Guaraldi never recorded this up-tempo jumper, but we can well imagine that he would have played it with Gillespie himself, during that Birdland run back in the late 1950s.

Vuckovich returned to the acoustic piano for the next two tunes, both taken from Black Orpheus. He took center stage on a lovely, lyrical reading of “Manha de Carnival,” the other players quietly comping and shading behind him.

McCain set the tone for the next tune, delivering the sassy bass introduction to Guaraldi’s arrangement of “Samba de Orpheus,” which he used as an opening number in so many of his own live performances. Tana contributed soft drums licks behind this prologue, until the point Vuckovich jumped in with the primary melody line. Even then, as the entire band swung into gear, the approach remained fairly soft at first, with Vuckovich dominating; things accelerated as Larry traded licks with Tana, and then the band brought the song to a crowd-pleasing conclusion.

Vuckovich briefly discussed how Guaraldi met Bola Sete, by way of introducing the next tune: “Ginza Samba,” which Guaraldi recorded several times, once with Sete. Tana and Santos set the beat for this one, an up-tempo swinger with Vuckovich and Workman doubling each other on the song’s melodic runs; piano and guitar then separated, with Workman taking the first solo. Vuckovich took the second, now back at the electric keyboard, with a solo on an electronic setting that mimicked the sound of vibes: an unexpected touch that prompted smiles from the audience. The band gave this tune a lengthy reading, and the interplay just got better and better. Santos drew laughs when he began shading with a “bird whistle,” which he used to conclude the song to the longest round of applause thus far.

Next up was a genuine treat: snatches of a private recording that Guaraldi made, back in the day, with John Mosher (bass) John Markham (drums) and Willie Bobo (bongos). We heard two excerpts: first the interior noodling from a jam roughly based on “I Got Rhythm,” and then a never-before-revealed — and certainly never commercially released — Guaraldi original titled “Blue Lullaby.” It opens with a slow, simple keyboard solo, then picks up tempo as bass and drums join in. Agonizingly, we were granted not quite two minutes, before this blast from Guaraldi’s past was silenced, so that Vuckovich and his combo could give their reading of this tune.

Larry opened with a similar keyboard solo, accompanied only by Tana’s quiet cymbals; they then shared the spotlight at the first bridge, as the tempo increased slightly, with Workman and McCain lending discreet support. I’d swear that Guaraldi’s version was in standard time, but Vuckovich turned the tune into a lovely waltz.

The first set concluded with “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” which Vuckovich introduced with a cute story about Guaraldi, who well understood how that hit tune had changed his life, and liked to tell people that his fancy Marin home was “bought for a song.” Vuckovich has recorded the song twice himself, neither of which rocked as much as this aggressive, percussive-driven arrangement. The familiar keyboard introduction quickly segued into a finger-snapping jazz jam that highlighted both Tana and Santos, with Vuckovich delivering some droll touches on his electronic keyboard. All told, this wasn’t the gentle ballad 1960s listeners would have recognized; it was, nonetheless, an exhilarating reading.

As promised, Bill Hart gave me an opportunity to chat briefly about Guaraldi; since Grace Cathedral had been mentioned between sets, I related the events that had led the Rev. Charles Gompertz to contact Guaraldi back in late 1963, with a suggestion for what eventually became the Guaraldi Jazz Mass that debuted on May 21, 1965.

The band then returned and opened the second set with a lively reading of “Choro,” the jazz-hued homage to Mozart that Guaraldi and Sete had recorded on their album, From All Sides. Vuckovich and Workman had a great time with this number, trading lead with piano/guitar blending that deftly echoed the Guaraldi/Sete partnership.

Vuckovich returned to the acoustic piano for a sweet handling of “Christmas Time Is Here,” which brought smiles to the audience. He wisely held to the original instrumentation of this Guaraldi classic, with his keyboard softly supported by cymbal brushes and quiet bass ... but Larry did grant the midpoint solo to Workman, who showed off his own tender side. It was a short cover, not quite three minutes, and it easily evoked the snowflakes, little children and imaginative beagle that first hit TV screens back in December 1965.

Workman demonstrated his chops with a soulful solo introduction to “The Days of Wine and Roses,” echoing the similar prologue that Sete gave this Mancini/Mercer hit, back when he and Guaraldi recorded it. Once the band joined in, this fresh arrangement became pure bossa nova, with Santos laying down a beat that should have had folks swaying in the aisles (if Silo’s were large enough to have aisles). Vuckovich really dug in with this one, his keyboard noodlings bearing a striking similarity to the sort of melodic improvs Guaraldi used to deliver. Workman was granted another solo, and then Vuckovich brought the song to what seemed like a quiet piano conclusion ... until he led the band into an up-tempo samba epilogue that earned considerable applause.

Sacramento-based jazz pianist (and avowed Guaraldi fan) Jim Martinez had been enjoying the concert as an audience member; Vuckovich brought him to the stage for a peppy, two-keyboard reading of Johnny Colon’s salsa-hued “Boogaloo Blues,” which debuted in 1967 on Colon’s album of the same title. This lively tune’s connection to Guaraldi is tenuous at best, but it made for a crowd-pleasing salsa detour that gave each member of the (now) sextet ample opportunity to roar. Those who know Martinez won’t be surprised to learn that he had no trouble keeping up with the pack; McCain’s solo also was particularly sweet. The tune turned into a great jam, running slightly north of seven minutes.

The concert concluded with Cal Tjader’s tribute to baseball’s Orlando Cepeda, “Viva Cepeda,” which Guaraldi recorded back in 1958, while a member of Tjader’s Quintet; the track appears on Cal Tjader’s Latin Concert. Vuckovich warned that he and the group were just starting to work it up ... “so bear with us,” he grinned. Indeed, the band was a bit tentative as the tune began, and Vuckovich and his comrades never quite achieved the tempo this Latin-inflected burner demands. That said, they settled into a comfortable groove and delivered another lengthy jam session that brought the afternoon to a head-nodding, finger-snapping close.

Departing from what felt like a jazz club at 6 p.m., during a warm California summer evening, the sun still quite evident, felt a bit “off”; one expects to stumble toward the car in the dead of night. But there was no denying that Vuckovich and his band — along with Martinez — sent patrons out with a bit more swing to their step.

Vuckovich spoke, several times, about his desire to repeat this concert at additional Northern California venues. Fingers crossed, Larry!

1 comment:

Bill Hart said...

Thanks, Derrick. It's fun to see one of our shows, essentially in its entirety, through the eyes (and ears) of someone who knows of what he speaks. I enjoyed it all over again.

And kudos to Vucko and the guys.

Bill Hart, Napa Valley Jazz Society