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SOUNDS : Quartet Gets Ready to Jazz Up Musicale in Thousand Oaks : Bob Florence and group will perform at Ascension Lutheran Church. His reputation is associated with big band music.

August 26, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Bob Florence takes the stage with his quartet at the Ascension Lutheran Church a week from Sunday, he'll be slightly out of context--in more than one way.

This is the first time the classically oriented Sunday Afternoon Musicale series will lean in the direction of jazz.

Florence's reputation on the West Coast jazz scene is almost reflexively associated with big band music. He has arranged and composed music for big bands for more than 30 years--in addition to work with such singers as Vicki Carr, Julie Andrews, Sarah Vaughan, and Andy Williams--and he's known as an important keeper of the flame through his work with the Bob Florence Limited big band, one of the best in circulation.

Florence is a pianist and, in fact, began his musical life as a young prodigy with ambitions of becoming a concert pianist. But he found a more compelling calling in arranging. He still plays gigs throughout Southern California, from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara's Sea Cove and elsewhere, as simply the piano player in the band.

"You get stuck in a groove and pigeonholed," Florence shrugged good-naturedly during a recent interview in his living room, marked by a conspicuous grand piano.

"I used to work as a pianist with Sue Raney. That was a lot of work for about seven years, but people would come up to me and say 'jeez, I didn't know you played piano.' That's the way life is. It's frustrating, but you have to laugh. Whatever they saw you do last, that's what you do."

In Thousand Oaks, Florence will be joined by woodwinds player Don Shelton, bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Michael Stephans, all longtime cohorts who have played in Florence's big band ranks.

Another bit of significance: Florence has been one of Ventura County's more illustrious jazz residents for 15 years. He named a song--a lilting waltz--and an album "Westlake" after the lakeside pied-a-terre where he and his wife, Evelyn, moved in the late '70s. Surprisingly, this concert will be his belated official debut as a leader in his own county.

A few months ago, the Florences migrated across the freeway to a townhouse in Thousand Oaks, where Florence--an amiable sort who looks something like Gary Busey's hip father--sat and talked about his life in music while his cat Sqatsi solicited affection (this is one of the cats immortalized in "The Cats' Waltz," from Florence's recent CD "Funupsmanship," on MAMA).

Florence's ZIP code makes him a very likely candidate for the Musicale's nod toward jazz. Still, he was a bit surprised when he was asked to do the concert by organizer Catherine Smith, and there was a bit of cultural translation to be done between them.

Smith, he related, "told me she wanted a program--the old classical style. I told her 'jeez, we don't work that way.' But she really wanted something, so I gave her a list of five or six tune titles that we might play, things like 'All the Things You Are,' 'All Blues,' 'Things Ain't What They Used to Be.'

"She says 'I notice it says on your list 'and possibly more.' I told her 'you ought to put on the program 'subject to change without notice,' " Florence noted, laughing. "We've all played together enough that we just go in and use our ears."

Playing in the intimate, flexible setting of a small group is a refreshing departure and a radically different operation from running his 18-piece big band. But there are similar highs involved, on different scales.

"It's a pain," he said of running a big band, "all the phone calls, all the this and that, and you just do it because you want to do it. Somebody told me once that when you have a small group with four or five guys playing together, it's so rewarding, but that if you can get 17 or 18 guys together and get that same feeling, you just multiply it.

"I've experienced that. You just go away from a performance talking to yourself and can't come down for three or four days."

What is the future of big band music? "It will always be here in some limited form, probably, as long as you get guys who want to do it," Florence says.

And part of the secret to Florence's success, besides his obvious arrangement and compositional skills, is the passions of guys who want to--who almost have to--do it. Many of his musicians make their living by doing studio work or playing in other non-jazz settings, and are willing to sacrifice in order to play jazz.

The Los Angeles native caught the big band bug while studying at L. A. City College. Although classical piano was a focus for him initially, he was lured away. "I had always liked jazz and popular music," Florence recalled. "I could play by ear and knew a lot of tunes. All it took was for me to take an arranging class, with Bob McDonald, to send me over the edge."

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