In a feat of logistics, Alfonse's found room to present Bill Berry's 16-piece orchestra Monday evening without squeezing the customers out into the street.
It was worth the effort. Berry, of course, has a band that is as strong as its repertoire, much of which was acquired during his long-ago association with Duke Ellington. Such compositions as "Blood Count" and "Big Fat Alice's Blues," both written by Billy Strayhorn for the alto saxophone of Johnny Hodges, enabled Marshal Royal, Berry's perennial lead alto virtuoso, to remind us just how closely he can approximate the beauty of the sterling Hodges sound.
Berry's muted horn provided the low key lead-in to a buoyant reading of the old Sweets Edison blues "Centerpiece." In further evidence that his Ellington association is far from exclusive, Berry turned Lanny Morgan's boppish alto sax loose on "Cherokee." This was followed by a Bob Ojeda arrangement of "America the Beautiful," in which the ideas and the solos (Bobby Bryant on trumpet, Jack Kelso on tenor sax) never quite flowed.
Other pieces furnished outlets for the trombonists Buster Cooper and Vince Prudente, both Ellington alumni, and for the always invigorating tenor sax of Bob Cooper.
Suddenly, half an hour into the set, it was no longer the band but the Jack Sheldon Comedy Hour, with Sheldon the singer (a hip, happy, humorous voice), Sheldon the trumpeter (confident and creative) and, for quite a while, Sheldon the monologuist, in anecdotes about his problems with drink, drugs and dieting. ("I also wanted to join Liars Anonymous, but they lied to me about where the meetings were held.") Sheldon wound up the set with "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me."
Since this is, after all, Bill Berry's orchestra, it is curious that he allots so little space to his own considerable ability as a soloist. It's no reflection on Sheldon or anyone else to suggest that in a band with a man of Berry's caliber at the helm, he is certainly entitled to equal time.
JACKIE COON PACKS THE CHINA TRADER
It was standing-room-only time Saturday evening at the China Trader, when Jackie Coon brought a hand-picked quintet into the Toluca Lake restaurant. Both the size of the crowd and the vociferous reaction indicated that despite his residency in Big Sur and the rarity of his appearances here, he has a strong local following.
Though Coon surrounds himself mainly with musicians dedicated to early jazz values, there is more to his success than an allegiance to the past. In the first place, the instrument of his choice is the fluegelhorn, which by its very nature, updates him. (One wonders how such cornet or trumpet giants as Bix, Louis and Roy Eldridge might have sounded had this horn been in general use in their day.)
Second, although he dishes up such 1920s ditties as "Avalon," "Shine" and "Riverboat Shuffle," his improvisations indicate an ear for harmonic changes and melodic patterns of a less dated nature. While treasuring the memory of his forefathers, Coon displays a fluency that manages, combined with the fluegelhorn tone, to produce an effect at once traditional and contemporary.
This objective was aided by the presence Saturday of Tommy Newsom, whose tenor sax is closer to Al Cohn than to, say, Bud Freeman. Another patently and potently non-traditional element was the bass of David Stone, whose solos add an inventive complexity unknown in the early swing years. More conventional but spirited and helpful were Ray Sherman, a pianist of the Teddy Wilson school, and the steady, sturdy drums of Gene Estes.
Alternating the old stompers with such vehicles as "Broadway" and an occasional ballad (Newsom's "She's Funny That Way" was a high point), Coon diversified further by putting down his horn long enough to field a relaxed vocal, verse and chorus, on Fats Waller's "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now."
One can safely infer that as long as they are purveyed with a measure of confidence and originality, the basic jazz sounds will survive and the riverboats will continue to shuffle.