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Jazz Notes

Recapturing the Grandeur of 'Thad Jones / Mel Lewis'

July 15, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There has never been, and chances are there will never be, a big band quite like the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.

The New York-based ensemble played gorgeous, swinging music, mostly by cornetist-trumpeter Jones. This music was an intoxicating combination of Duke Ellington's mahogany-tinged tonal luster, Count Basie's stuff-strutting whammy and shimmer, Charlie Parker's mad melodic whirl and, occasionally, the heady brain-driven work of Stravinsky, Webern and Bartok.

"That music was mesmerizing and thrilling. It was the ultimate as far as a big band was concerned," says Garnett Brown, the L.A.-based trombonist who was with the orchestra from its inception in 1965 until 1970. "There was a lightness and airiness to this music that was absolutely fantastic."

Co-led by drummer Lewis, the orchestra's larder was stocked with some of Manhattan's finest jazzmen, among them trombonists Brown and Bob Brookmeyer, saxmen Pepper Adams and Joe Farrell, trumpeters Richard Williams and Snooky Young, and bassist Richard Davis.

The grandeur and smack this great band offered are in plain view on "The Complete Solid State Recordings of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra," a five-CD/seven-LP set just released on Mosaic Records. The collection, which documents the band's first five years, makes available material that has long been out of print, including many tracks that have been remixed for sound clarity. Five previously unissued tracks are also included.

Among the time-tested selections here are Jones' now-standard ballad, the pensive, misty "A Child Is Born"; the crisp and demanding "The Little Pixie"; the come-hither back-beaters "A-Hunk, A-Hunk" and "Don't Get Sassy"; deep, probing versions of "Willow Weep for Me" and "St. Louis Blues" (both penned by Brookmeyer); and such pretty ditties as "Don't Ever Leave Me."

The set, priced at $75 for CD and $91 for LP, is available by mail only from Mosaic, 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, Conn. 06902. Information: (203) 327-7111.

Young Man With a Style: Singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli is just 34, but the native New Yorker looks back several decades for his chief vocal influence: Nat King Cole.

"I first heard Nat in 1980, and his style was more approachable, more reachable as a singer," says Pizzarelli, the son of noted guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. "Whereas someone like Frank Sinatra is untouchable. The songs he does are more than just songs, they're his songs."

Pizzarelli--who, with his brother Martin Pizzarelli (bass) and Ray Kennedy (piano), appears Wednesday and Thursday at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City--has an appealing, unaffected voice that recalls Harry Connick Jr. at his best. "I'm probably more a musician's singer, than a singer's singer," Pizzarelli says. "I'm a musician first, even though I sang as a kid, and have always sung."

On his two previous Novus recordings, Pizzarelli has focused on great pop tunes, but for his just-out recording "New Standards" he takes another tack. The songs are not overly done, from the recent Robert Craft and Arnie Glimcher ballad "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" from the film "The Mambo Kings" to the kitschy Rosemary Clooney song from the early '50s, "Come On-A My House," which cooks along heartily.

"I just wanted to do something fresh," he says. And he did.

* Pizzarelli plays Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m., at the Jazz Bakery, 3221 Hutchison Ave., Culver City. $15, refreshments included. Information: (310) 271-9039.

Critic's Choices: Guitar great Joe Pass, who died last month, will be feted at a memorial tribute, to be held Sunday, 2-5 p.m., at the Musicians Institute (1655 N. McFadden Place, Hollywood). On tap will be many of the town's top guitarists, among them John Pisano, Al Viola, Frank Potenza, Doug MacDonald and Mundell Lowe. Tickets are $5 and $10. Information: (213) 462-1384.

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