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JAZZ REVIEW : Joe Williams, 'Tonight Show' Band: Match Made in Pasadena

December 03, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER

The teaming of Joe Williams and "The Tonight Show" Orchestra conducted by Doc Severinsen, presented Tuesday and Wednesday at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, was an inspiration in at least two ways: It afforded the preeminent male singer of the jazz world a rare chance to be heard locally in a big-band setting, and it allowed the audience to hear in person a band whose appearances are so often confined to five-second playoffs at the end of a routine by a comic or animal trainer.

Since Williams' commanding personality came to worldwide attention during his six years with the Count Basie Orchestra, the juxtaposition of his baritone with a battery of trumpets, trombones and saxophones still provides him with a logical setting that puts him immediately at ease--not that he could ever be less than comfortable with anything this side of an East Asian gamelan band.

Armed with a battery of arrangements by Thad Jones and others, he opened with a charming old song called "That Face" that put the band and the capacity crowd in a relaxed mood that was sustained through his sets in both halves of the concert.

To state that the blues is his forte would imply that he is less than powerfully effective in any other idiom, yet his "Young and Foolish," appropriately slotted after a rowdy band number featuring the drummer Ed Shaughnessy, exemplified his ability to bring out the lyrical and melodic excellence of a warm and tender ballad. Still, the supply of blues was plentiful, among them tributes to Jimmy Rushing and Duke Ellington and, for the finale, a scat chorus or two during the band's "One O'Clock Jump."

Doc Severinsen and Co. clearly relished this chance to appear in person and perform at length. Instrumentally, the leader bears a strong resemblance to Harry James, in that he can turn from a florid, almost fulsome sound and style to a jazz solo that swings as naturally as James did in his less bombastic moments.

A highlight of the evening was a 15-minute suite by Tommy Newsom, "Three Shades of Blue." The first movement provided the trombonist Gil Falco with a chance to improvise freely, reminding us of the hidden potential in many instrumentalists who lead anonymous lives as studio sidemen.

In the second, slow blues movement, Severinsen on fluegelhorn and Ross Tompkins on piano were in elegant form; finally Snooky Young stepped to the mike, plunger mute in hand, to engage in a "talking trumpets" duet routine with Severinsen along the lines established by the late Rex Stewart in Duke Ellington's Orchestra.

The band for the most part was both loose and inspired, though the rhythmic foundation improved noticeably when, during Joe Williams' numbers, Joel DiBartolo switched from electric to upright bass, which he should have played throughout. Bruce Paulson on trombone and Pete Christlieb on tenor sax also had their moments in the Pasadena spotlight.

It was hard to leave the Ambassador without wondering whether, one of these days, Joe Williams might not have a chance to do more than two numbers with this band on Johnny Carson's time, and possibly an entire show might even be built around this compatible team.

Well, we can dream, can't we?

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