Mandel Remains Brilliant, Humble at 90th Birthday Bash:
Johnny Mandel convenes his orchestra a few times a year in Southern California, most notably at Ken Poston’s biannual Los Angeles Jazz Institute big band festivals. Mandel takes those occasions to focus on an aspect of his extensive history, as he did in October during the LAJI’s Frank Sinatra tribute. But he’s also got a favorite club setting: Upstairs at Vitello’s, a jazz and supper club in Studio City. Unbeknownst to him, the gig on Jan. 9 would include a surprise 90th birthday tribute for the composer/arranger, who was born Nov. 23, 1925.
In Poston’s introduction, he told the packed house that Mandel is important not only as a jazz and soundtrack composer but also as a still in-demand vocal arranger. 
Mandel’s band is made up of some of the most coveted players in the Hollywood studios. On this night, they indicated there was no place they’d rather be. 
Guitarist Bruce Foreman was set loose on the blues bounce “Low Life,” before tenor saxophonists Rickey Woodard and Sal Lozano got nasty with the tune. “Not Really The Blues,” the 1949 flag-waver written for Woody Herman (“That band was so good it was frightening,” Mandel offered) saw trombonist Ira Nepus play a pungent solo while trumpeter Carl Saunders embroidered with high notes.
Pianist John Campbell caressed the familiar ballad “Emily,” of which Mandel said, “I believe this was responsible for the births of a whole bunch of Emilys.” Alto saxophonist Carol Chaikin channeled Earl Bostic with her blowtorch tone on the raunchy bounce “Black Nightgown.” Baritone saxophonist Bob Efford affirmed that he’s an original voice who sounds like none of the icons of the big horn. His roomy sound flooded the tonal basement on the blues feature “I Want To Live.”
With Mandel’s charts, listeners can revel in the solos or groove on the beautiful voicings of the supporting wind instruments. The flutes and clarinets were showcased for “The Shadow Of Your Smile” and the theme to “M.A.S.H.” (aka “Suicide Is Painless”). But whether it was a Basie-style swinger or a pretty ballad, the third trumpet part was as melodic as the theme line. Craftsmanship has always been a hallmark of Mandel’s composing.
After the set, Mandel repaired to his table for dinner, and that’s when the real fun began. His associate Debbie Byars had quietly engineered the evening—filling the intimate room with personal friends and musical associates—and it truly took Mandel by surprise.
Poston served as master of ceremonies, stating that with the Dean Martin roasts in mind, the tributes would commence. But unlike those skewer-fests of the 1970s, nobody had a bad word to say about Johnny. A handful of singers rendered poignant ballads: Pinky Winters (“You Are There”), Bill Cantos (“Love To Me”), Sue Raney (“Our Shining Sea”) and Alan Bergman (“Where Do You Start?”).
Trombonist Scott Whitfield and his wife Ginger Berglund delivered the bright-tempoed “Little Did I Dream” (a.k.a. “Hershey Bar,” popularized by Stan Getz), marking them as successors to Jackie and Roy.
Written praise from those who couldn’t attend came from composers Dave Grusin and John Clayton, as well as songwriters Dave Frishberg and Morgan Ames. Clark Burroughs of the Hi-Los, tunesmiths Marilyn Bergman and Paul Williams—who praised Mandel’s efforts on behalf of songwriters everywhere—delivered spoken encomiums.
“Our relationship goes back before electricity,” Quincy Jones quipped. “We met backstage at the Apollo Theatre, when I was with Lionel Hampton and Johnny was with Count Basie’s band.”
With that kind of wind in his sails, Mandel didn’t say much. He just did what he does best—lead his orchestra in another crack (though short) set. “Keester Parade” (co-written with trumpeter Sweets Edison) gave Efford and Woodard a greasy blues excursion, while the peppery bossa “Cinnamon And Clove” (co-written with Alan and Marilyn Bergman) highlighted Woodard’s rhythmic incision.
All of Mandel’s musical assets were in abundant evidence: a showcase for his players, strong melodic development, lovely songs, carefully calibrated dynamics, swinging ensemble writing, a love of the blues at all tempos, and a balance of the reflective and the exuberant. Along with the technical mastery, Mandel adds gratitude and humility, which makes for quite a package. 
(Note: To read a Classic Interview with Count Basie, click here.)
—Kirk Silsbee

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