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A Free Spirit : Les Hooper likes to mix things up when he composes. 'I don't want to bore myself,' he says.

July 22, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times

SHERMAN OAKS — "Anything Goes" is Les Hooper's theme song.

It's not just because he likes the Cole Porter tune (from the 1934 Broadway show of the same name), but because he bases his musical philosophy on the same libertine attitude.

"I like the idea of doing songs weird. That leaves them open for all kinds of stuff," says Hooper, 54. "That's my personality. I tend to get bored easily, so when I write, I don't want to bore myself, so I try to find new ways to turn things upside down and make them wacky."

This might make the composer and arranger, who appears Tuesday with his Big Band at the Moonlight Tango Cafe, sound like a modern-day Spike Jones, but he's far from just a novelty writer. He's been composing Big Band pieces for more than 20 years, and has racked up seven Grammy nominations for his wares. Hooper has also crafted the music for hundreds of commercial jingles, and he's written for TV and film.

His Big Band pieces, while imbued with all manner of contemporary sounds--from New Orleans R&B to today's funk--are still jazz-based at their center, and there's a good, foot-tapping feeling to his work.

"He's hip, and I like that," says Lenetta Kidd, the singer who books the Moonlight Tango. "He's just an individualist in terms of his interpretations of songs."

Hooper's explanation of his version of the '70s pop tune, "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma," gives an idea of the sense of fun, and creativity, at play in his music.

"First I made it a quasi-two-beat, then it went into straight-ahead jazz," he begins. "Then I took bars of music and stretched them, then I diminished some, trying to make things unexpected. I try to set people up for something, but then not deliver. It plays with their heads. Overall, I try to keep the music extremely human."

"Rooster Parade," a tune that mixes contemporary funk with more traditional straight-ahead sounds, is also unique.

"The band plays rounds," Hooper says. "It's supposed to be fun for the audience."


"Rooster Parade" is one of several tunes Hooper has composed with a reference to poultry in the title. "There's 'Chicken Yard Social,' 'Poultry Guest,' 'Chicken Scratch' and 'Chicken Pollo,' " he says. "These tunes have gotten to be a running gag. Like, there's a section at the end of 'Chicken Yard Social' where there are some staccato figures that sounds like a bunch of chickens clucking." This all comes from Hooper's childhood. "Our house in Baton Rouge was right next to a chicken ranch, and I used to wake up every day to the sounds of the chickens."

There is a serious side to Hooper, he admits. He points out that on Tuesday he'll offer slow ballads, among them Johnny Mandel's "Emily," featuring Clay Jenkins on trumpet. In addition, Preston Smith--who leads the band the Crocodiles--will sing Hooper arrangements of the bluesy favorite, "I Want a Little Girl" and Ann Ronell's classic "Willow Weep for Me." "I wrote that in a Nelson Riddle vein," says Hooper, talking about the great arranger who wrote so many wonderful charts for Frank Sinatra in the '50s and '60s.

Hooper fell in love with music as a youth in Baton Rouge, La., and was soon playing piano in local rock bands. He became interested in jazz, and after attending Louisiana State University, led a Big Band in Chicago, where he lived in the '70s. He moved to Los Angeles soon thereafter, and established himself as a smart composer. He wrote soundtracks for such TV shows as "Rhoda" and "Charlie's Angels," then gradually moved into commercial work, where he still makes the bulk of his living.

The musician has also branched into film. He wrote incidental music for, and his Big Band appeared in, Robert Altman's "The Player," and he recently completed the score for "Road Flower," a Miramax film by Deran Sarafian, starring Christopher Lambert and Craig Sheffer and due for release this winter.

The demands of writing have kept Hooper, a Sherman Oaks resident, away from public performance for the past year, but he says the Moonlight Tango engagement should begin a new phase. "I've missed that individual expression that comes from playing," he says. "Playing and writing, they need each other."


Who: Les Hooper's Big Band, with singer Preston Smith.

Location: Moonlight Tango Cafe, 13730 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

Hours: 8 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Price: $13 cover 8 p.m. show, $9 cover 9:30 p.m. show, $9.95 minimum.

Call: (818) 788-2000.

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