There's never much doubt about what to expect in a performance by Louis Bellson's big band. The veteran drummer's ensembles are classic examples of hard-swinging, rich-textured, brass-and percussion-driven, larger-than-life jazz.
Bellson brought his 17-piece congregation to Catalina Bar & Grill on Tuesday for a too-brief, two-night run. The 67-year-old musician, arguably the finest surviving big-band percussionist, energized his collection of first-rate Los Angeles players with a precise, nonstop stream of crisp drumming and splashy cymbal crashes that were awesome to behold.
Soloing concisely on most of the numbers, and at length in the set's climactic rendition of Don Menza's arrangement of "Caravan," Bellson was equally impressive in the more subtle task of accenting the inner workings of each of the band's sections.
Supporting and driving nine brass and five reeds can be a monumental assignment, but Bellson handled it with ease.
Among the group's many superlative soloists, trumpeters Conte Candoli and Steve Huffsteter made particularly effective use of their improvisational opportunities.
Saxophonists Menza and Pete Christlieb, however, were the horn-playing stars of the program, especially during a wild duo impromptu on "Caravan," and with individual ballad excursions through "Prelude to a Kiss" and "We'll Be Together Again."