Johnny Otis, who opened Wednesday at the Vine Street Bar and Grill in Hollywood, has had more careers than most cats have lives: Drummer, pianist, vibraphonist, composer, music publisher, record producer, singer, journalist, disc jockey, author, but mainly talent scout and catalyst in the rhythm and blues world.
The group he is now fronting constitutes a virtual retrospective of his musical career, with a cast that includes three brass, three saxes, a rhythm section and three vocalists. It's an unclassifiable cocktail of blues, mainstream jazz, soul music and pop singing, with Otis sometimes pitching in as an additional voice, though he functions mainly as pianist (usually in a Basie bag) and as a capable Lionel Hampton style vibes soloist.
His first record hit, the 1945 "Harlem Nocturne," was revived as a solo vehicle for the fluent alto sax of Clifford Soloman. "Flying Home" was another bow to the past: Otis played drums on Illinois Jacquet's version, also in 1945. Of course, "Willie and the Hand Jive," a novelty hit for Otis in the 1950s, is still in the book.
The Basie, Hampton and Ellington instrumentals constituted the backbone of the show. The singers, heard singly and collectively, did not reveal another potential star (Otis discovered Esther Phillips among others).
Otis's Hampton tribute on vibes, an hour into the program, would have been a fine place to stop, but there was another half hour to come. Inexplicably, a male quartet, brought on as guests, sang three doo-wop numbers in a style that went out of fashion with the Ink Spots. La Dee Streeter made her way conventionally through "Lover Man," assisted by Larry Douglas, a tasteful fluegelhornist. Two male singers dueted on "Soul Man," with three more numbers still to come.
Otis' son Shuggie, always an impressive guitarist, should have been given more to do. In fact, there may be more than enough talent in the orchestra to compensate for the vocal shortcomings. But the Johnny Otis Show has always been just that, a potpourri of diverse elements that aims to entertain rather than conquer the world with innovation.
Otis moves out Saturday, but will be back for another run March 15-18.