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JAZZ REVIEW : Billy Mitchell Band at Grand Avenue Bar

December 23, 1987|A. JAMES LISKA

The Billy Mitchell Band might have looked a bit like Earth, Wind & Fire at its debut Monday night at the Grand Avenue Bar at the Biltmore Hotel; and the band even looked a bit like that powerhouse R&B band. But the surprise was the group's ability to swing in conventional jazz time.

The seven-member band, whose leader plays piano with an appealing jauntiness, began its second set Monday evening with a hard-driving rendition of "Dindi." Though the ballad rendition of the tune by the late Willie Bobo is preferable, the tune did manage to showcase singer Cheryl Barnes' attractively husky alto in a good light.

"Hearts On Fire," a tune from the Earth, Wind & Fire repertoire, was the first of three tunes the band played in a strong swing groove established by bassist Hilliard Wilson and drummer Lance Lee. The song also served to introduce the considerable alto saxophone talents of John Bolivar, who would later show equal abilities on the tenor sax and flute.

Unfortunately, one of the three swing tunes selected for performance was the over-played "Satin Doll." Even Mitchell must realize what a tired song it has become as he couldn't resist noodling with the melody in a campy manner. The group's later reading of the rarely heard "Salt Peanuts" was an overall better choice.

But even "Satin Doll" was a better listen than either "Try To Make It Real," a hard-driving rock tune whose political message was obscured by a strained sound system, or "Love In The Redwoods," a boring funk-Latin instrumental that had nowhere to grow, despite some tasty musical shadings by synthesist Angela Whitney and percussionist Woody Johnson.

An interesting inclusion was Barnes' singing of "The Cradles," a gentle French lullaby that offered soothing respite from the band's overall loudness.

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