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A Mixture of Moods : From foot-tapping swing to ethereal sounds, arranger-composer Tom Talbert's works spring from his devotion to two schools of music.

August 19, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times

SHERMAN OAKS — Listen to the music of jazz arranger-composer Tom Talbert and you sometimes hear soft, pliant tones of trombones and French horns gently careening into each other; sometimes you hear biting reed and brass state ments engaging with a charged rhythm section.

This duality of moods derives from Talbert's devotion to two musical schools: the elegant, driving swing of the classic jazz big bands of the '30s and '40s, and the ethereal, colorful sounds that are essentials of such French Impressionist classical composers as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

"I wasn't only attracted to jazz. It was all music, and it's all influenced a lot of my sound," says Talbert, 70, a native of Minneapolis who has been living in Southern California since 1975.

He leads his large ensemble, with such soloists as trumpeters Bob Summers and Steve Huffsteter, trombonist Andy Martin and saxophonist Bob Efford, on Tuesday at the Moonlight Tango Cafe. Singer Madelyn Vergari will also be on hand.

Talbert's recent album, "The Warm Cafe," on SeaBreeze Records, showcases his appealing writing style. For a piece that is built around luxurious, foot-tapping swing, there's "Someone's Rocking My Blues."

"As I was writing this, I was thinking of the tremendous effect I got then, around 1940, when I was a teen-ager listening to Count Basie's band, when such arrangers as Buster Harding, Eddie Durham and Buck Clayton were writing," Talbert says. "I'd hear that band on the radio, maybe in the car, or at home, and I'd get so excited from the music that I couldn't sleep. There were broadcasts from all across the country then. The big-band business was at its peak. There were marvelous things happening musically, and they were hitting me."

The album's version of French guitarist Django Reinhardt's "Manoir de Mes Reves" is, in contrast, quiet and languorous, bringing forth shimmering clouds of sound that envelope Don Shelton's soothing clarinet tones and Huffsteter's fat-noted fluegelhorn statements.

Asked why he writes in this distinctive style, Talbert says, "It's hard to say. I never went to music school, and I had to figure everything out for myself. I probably learned the most from listening to records. So I ended up writing what I heard in my head, and what I liked. I never tried to make it sound like Ravel's 'Daphnis and Chloe.' It's just what I hear."

Talbert has long had his share of ardent fans. One was Academy Award-winning screenwriter and author Budd Schulberg, who wrote in his liner notes to a Talbert album: "Talbert is a romantic who shuns the cliche. He is a technician who trusts the heart. Even when he's being clever, his notes are warm and tender."

For a guy who's self-taught, Talbert has done OK. In the '40s and '50s, he lived in New York and wrote arrangements for many of the greats of jazz. These included big-band leaders Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton, and Claude Thornhill--whose orchestra also sported charts crafted by Gil Evans, another writer with a creative bent similar to Talbert's. In addition, Talbert wrote for small-band notables such as trombonist Kai Winding and bass maestro Oscar Pettiford. He made two albums for Atlantic Records--one of which is "Bix Duke Fats," recently reissued on SeaBreeze--and also supplemented his income by writing music for TV commercials.

"New York was great then," he reminisces. "There was so much going on, musically, and while no one I knew was making a lot of money, you could still live well because things--rent, meals out--didn't cost that much."

When his work "evaporated," he said, with the advent of rock in the '60s, Talbert moved back to Minneapolis, where he worked in the office of his father's barge line company, and continued to write.

In the mid-'70s, encouraged by changing musical attitudes, he came to Southern California and wrote for TV, contributing soundtracks to such shows as "Serpico" and "Emergency." He stopped writing soundtracks about 11 years ago, and says he doesn't miss the business at all.

Talbert started writing in high school, spurred by the thought that arrangers decide the sound of the band. "It was like I heard the Pied Piper when I heard those big bands, Ellington, Basie, Charlie Barnet," he says. "I've never done a lot of soul-searching about why I stuck with music. It's what I know, and what I'm good at."


Who: Tom Talbert's Big Band, with singer Madelyn Vergari.

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

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

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

Call: (818) 788-2000.

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