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Married to Melody

Trumpeter prides himself on learning from the style of celebrated singers.

January 22, 1998|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the early '60s, the seminal jazz critic Martin Williams published a book whose title was a question often asked by listeners new to jazz: "Where's the melody?" Trumpeter Richie Vitale tries to make sure his audiences don't have to resort to such a query.

"The melody is the most important part of the tune," he said. "It's often more important than my solo."

The New York City-based horn man, who appears Friday and Saturday at Jax in Glendale (he also plays tonight at Club Brasserie in West Hollywood), said he got his schooling in melody from singers.

"At home, growing up in Rochester, I'd hear people like Enrico Caruso and Frank Sinatra," said Vitale, now 43. "Then later, when I was in Boston, I'd listen to Billie Holiday play along with her records. These singers were doing the melody, well, properly isn't the right word. They were interpreting the melody the way they felt it."

Vitale, whose latest album is "Live at Smalls" (TCB Records), doesn't just play the melodies of songs. The artist is a dedicated, roots-minded jazzman who names as favorites such trumpet greats as Clifford Brown, Kenny Dorham, Dizzy Gillespie, Blue Mitchell and Art Farmer, musicians who came along in the '40s and '50s and who played with consummate lyricism while swinging like mad.

"Those are the cats," Vitale said, "and what I'm always doing is comparing my music to theirs, to their era. It was a magical time, and a lot of innovators were around and playing.

"And while I don't think we'll see another Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane," he said, referring to the two tenor sax giants, "that's not to say jazz is dead. There are some guys today, like trumpeters Tom Harrell and Joe Magnarelli, who are playing the right stuff. Like in the movies, we don't have a Humphrey Bogart or an Eddie G. (Robinson), but we do have Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel, so there's hope."

Vitale will work at Jax with a small group that includes the fine guitarist Sid Jacobs and drummer Ron Marabuto, whom he knows from his early professional days on Long Island, N.Y. The tunes will range from originals such as "Mariko" and a jazz song by Duke Pearson called "Each Time I Think of You" to standards like "All the Things You Are" and classic ballads such as "My Old Flame."

Drawn to the trumpet at age 12, when his older brother taught him some scales, Vitale found jazz through serendipity. At a summer camp for underprivileged youngsters in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., he heard a Miles Davis record of the tune, "So What."

"I just flipped," he said. "It was something else."

Then, during classes at the Barley School of Music, which he attended during his high school years, Vitale got to play with drum master Philly Joe Jones. "Joe told me I sounded kinda like Miles," Vitale said.

Later, when he lived on Long Island, the trumpeter performed with such notables as saxophonists Pepper Adams and Junior Cook, and drummer Roy Haynes.

Vitale, who spent 1990 to 1995 as a trumpet soloist with Frank Sinatra, said that jazz helped open him up and define his personality. He likened the music's spontaneity to the bloom of childhood, and said he would play for free, if he could afford it.

"Music," he said, "is medicine."

* Richie Vitale plays Friday and Saturday, 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., at Jax, 339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. No cover, no minimum. Call: (818) 500-1604.

*

Coming Out to Play: The swell vibist Emil Richards, who cut his jazz teeth in Los Angeles in the late '50s and early '60s working with ace reed man Paul Horns, doesn't get out to the clubs very much. He is too busy as a studio musician.

In the same situation are three other dynamos: pianist Mike Lang, who worked alongside Richards with Horn, bassist Ken Wild and drummer Joe Porcaro. But these guys all love to play hard swinging jazz and so they gather about once a month to do just that.

Catch them on Friday, 8:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., at Monteleone's West (19337 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana; no cover; without dinner, $9.95 food/drink minimum. Information: [818] 996-0662).

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