Larry Vuckovich and His Young at Heart Ensemble: Swingin
“ After taking in the sunset over the crashing surf of the Pacific, the audience was ready for more, and the band didn ”
The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, located on the Pacific Ocean in Half Moon Bay, CA, was host to a phenomenal night of jazz performed by Larry Vuckovich’s All-Star San Francisco “Young at Heart” Ensemble on Sunday, March 30. This eclectic venue on the ocean was packed to the rafters, and was not disappointed by the straight ahead jazz covering Basie and Lester Young to Coltrane, and beyond, with several beautiful new pieces written by Larry Vuckovich. This was also a live recording, which will be released this summer along with six tracks previously recorded with the legendary Jon Hendricks on vocals.
The evening started with the Bobby Timmons classic “Moanin”, featuring Larry Vuckovich’s delicate virtuosity on piano, along with the smooth and grooving rhythm section of Harold Jones on drums, Jon Santos on Conga’s, Nat Johnson on bass, and Josh Workman on guitar. Harold Jones was Count Basie’s drummer from 1967 – 1972, which was followed by many years with Sarah Vaughn; he is known as the quintessential big-band drummer with a crisp, clean sound, and near-perfect time. John Santos, who recently released the Grammy nominated “SF Bay”, provided a night long bonus of the perfect beat on the congas and bongos.
The band shifted into the Count Basie/Lester Young tradition of swing and blues with Neal Hefti’s “Why Not” and a Larry Vuckovich tribute to Lester Young, “Lester’s Minor Blues”. Featured here, and throughout the evening was the versatile Tenor Sax front line of Noel Jewkes and Ron Stallings. Vuckovich provided this description of their styles: “Noel is one of the few saxophonists today who is able to sound and do the style of many masters, including Hawk, Pres, and Trane. He is one of the few on today’s scene that can play very close to Lester’s phrasing and also get that particular sound and feeling”. “Ron has a wonderful affinity for the classic jazz tenor styles, including Gene Ammons, Wardell Gray, Dexter, and Trane, with a soulful, powerful sound”. These tunes, along with a raucous rendition of “Jumpin at the Woodside” later in the first set treated the audience to a classic yet modern swinging sound that is rarely heard today.
Next up was “Serbo Salsa”, another original composition by Larry, which blends his Balkan roots into a beautiful Gypsy and Latin inspired melody. After one of Larry’s signature piano intros, we were treated to a Soprano Sax duet by Jewkes and Stallings, followed by some stunning 4 bar interplay exchanges between Vuckovich & Santos, leading into inspiring solos on the Sopranos. The next piece was another new composition “One Heart”, written by Chicago pianist Dave Brambert as a tribute to Larry and his wife, Sanna Craig. Brambert traveled from Chicago to hear his entrancing ballad performed in an ensemble setting for the first time. Ron Stallings again demonstrated his soulful soprano sound, followed by the versatile Jewkes on flute. Bassist Nat Johnson, who most closely follows Leroy Vinnegar’s walking bass style, ended the set with a rendition of the Ellington classic “Sophisticated Lady” featuring his sweet baritone vocals.
After taking in the sunset over the crashing surf of the Pacific, the audience was ready for more, and the band didn’t disappoint. First off was the Ellington/Strayhorn arrangement of “Flamingo” (written by Ted Grouya), which featured Larry’s fluid and elegant piano and great conga and drum counterpoint work by Santos and Jones, leading into a smooth solo by Nat Johnson on bass. The pace (and intensity) picked up with the John Coltrane’s “Impressions”. I felt that the tenor work on this piece was one of the highlights of the evening, with both players handling the modal complexities with ease. Ron Stallings sound was especially forceful and dynamic on this piece.
Once more we were treated to Nat Johnson’s vocals, this time on Johnny Mandel’s “The Shadow of Your Smile”, which included a beguiling Soprano solo by Noel Jewkes. The Young at Heart Ensemble never slows down for too long, as next up was the Basie/Lester Young classic “Jumpin with Symphony Sid”. The Tenors were at it again, with Jewkes proving again his rare grasp of Lester’s sound and phrasing. Josh Workman, also was groovin’ with a Freddy Green style guitar solo.