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Jazz : Mulligan, Wilson in the Swing

October 31, 1994|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gerry Mulligan and Gerald Wilson--similar in name, if not in style--were the standouts of the Friday and Saturday performances at KLON's Jazz West Coast celebration.

Mulligan, one of the two or three biggest names in West Coast jazz in the '50s, dominated Friday's events. His participation began the afternoon with a lighthearted, one-man panel discussion at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza Hotel, the festival's primary venue.

One story he told the enthralled audience was about the mundane circumstances surrounding the decision to form his famous pianoless quartet. Simply, the club where he was working refused to provide a grand piano.

*

In his current quartet's evening concert at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, Mulligan was every bit as warm, gregarious and communicative with his baritone sax as he had been with his reminiscences. Sprinkling a set of newer material with a few ballads and originals, he played with the gorgeous tone and perky rhythmic swing that have characterized his music for more than 40 years.

Wilson's role in the festival might have been smaller, but his appearance rescued a Saturday night program at the Performing Arts Center that was in danger of drifting into dreary irrelevance.

An opening group of orchestrations by Marty Paich and Jack Montrose was played in dispirited fashion by a large ensemble that, despite its obvious skills, seemed to simply be going through the motions.

Lennie Niehaus enlivened the proceedings somewhat with his brisk charts, but it remained for arranger-composer-conductor Wilson, who's 76, to definitively turn things around. Clearly enjoying himself, he conducted his colorful, hard-swinging arrangements with the energy and enthusiasm of a Leonard Bernstein. By the time Wilson kicked off an animated treatment of "Perdido," the audience had finally come to life.

There were a number of other appealing elements in the two days of performances: a series of entertaining sets by groups led by Dave Pell, Bud Shank, Buddy Collette, Bill Perkins, Jack Montrose and Pete Rugolo; a bevy of piano trios; an all-star musical tour through the history of the seminal jazz club, the Lighthouse; and the ailing Jimmy Giuffre's courageous duo appearance with pianist Paul Bley.

A Friday night big band presentation of Shorty Rogers' music was less impressive, hampered by the absence of Rogers, who could not attend because of illness.

And the U.S. debut of Herb Geller's musical, "Playing Jazz," lacked the dramatic content and story continuity to sustain 90 minutes. Geller's music was superb, overflowing with sweeping melodies and rich harmonics. But the production desperately needs a good lyricist.

The four-day festival was to conclude on Sunday.

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