Jerry Vivino Quartet & Friends:
August 6, 2009 at Vitello's Jazz Upstairs, Studio City, CA
by Debra Graff
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It was a privilege and an honor to be at Jerry Vivino’s first LA gig with his quartet of amazing musicians at the Red Carpet Jazz Series, Upstairs at Vitello’s, in Studio City.
Jerry was beaming as he talked about the new Tonight Show band with Conan. “I have the greatest job in the world. It’s a never-ending blessing.” He was grateful to play at Vitello’s and have a creative outlet where people come to listen. “It’s important to find the NY in LA and develop a relationship with a club like this.”
The entire band was ecstatic to be at this sophisticated venue with curtains in the back, low ceilings, candles on the tables, and a gorgeous piano. They had smiles on their faces the whole time, eager to share their thoughts and stories with me, friendly, energetic, and communicative. I was reminded why I miss NY so much and delighted these four amazing East Coast musicians have moved here and will be keeping me company.
James Wormworth, accomplished drummer, who’s been playing with Jerry for about 25 years, is enjoying California and feels right at home. He calls being with Conan on a permanent basis, “life affirming.” James loves playing with Jerry because “he’s got the biggest heart.” He said Jerry is serious about the music but not too serious so he’s willing to have a good time and entertain people. “Jerry is open and welcoming, making the audience feel like friends.”
James’ most memorable LA moment so far was experiencing his first earthquake. He was at Mel’s Diner having a burger and the booth started shaking, but when he looked around to see what crazies were at the next booth, no one was there. He texted his friends who told him it was just an earthquake and not to forget to breathe.”
Mike Merritt, talented bassist, loves performing with Jerry because they’ve built up a “vibe,” by playing together so often. “When we’re away from the Tonight Show, we can cut loose, stretch, blow, have fun, and see where it goes. Jerry is unique because he’s always mindful of the crowd and the environment.”
Mike’s hoping they can build a scene and find a place where musicians and friends will come, like they had in NY at the Café Luxia every Thursday night for many years. He didn’t find the stereotypical LA that everyone talks about. Most people he’s met here are from NY. Mike couldn’t stop praising the Hollywood Bowl concert he attended the night before, featuring the music of Miles Davis/Gil Evans. He was so impressed by the “vastness of it and the all acoustic, large, jazz ensemble.”
Scott Healy, master pianist, who’s played with Jerry since 1985, enjoys the “looseness” of playing with Jerry and says “he’s fun to play with.” Scott was impressed by how much thought and effort was put into the new Conan set.
His strangest experience in LA was walking off the plane and realizing that he didn’t have a return ticket. He had always come here just to play, but this time it was to stay.
I asked the band what music they were listening to these days and which musicians inspired them. Jerry listens to mainstream, 50’s, bebop and even Yo Yo Ma. He told me his biggest inspirations are John Coltrane, the late great Sam Butera, and Louis Prima. Scott’s favorites are Duke Ellington, Bill Evans (for his chord changes), and Herbie Hancock (for his modern solos). James said he’s “inspired by the guys I play with. We enjoy each other’s music and each other’s company.
I love these guys.” (His response initiated a big group hug).
The song list included Miles Davis’ Seven Steps to Heaven,’ Sonny Rollins’ Blue Seven, John Coltrane’s Naima, Louis Prima’s Jump Jive n’ Wail, Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely and Duke Ellington’s In a Mellow Tone. The audience was captive and enthralled, responding with foot stomping, clapping, and cheering, especially during the band’s rendition of Harry Warner’s There’ll Never Be Another You.
Jerry’s dancing and twirling while he played the sax was a highlight. Jerry astounded us playing tenor, soprano, and flute in one song, displaying his lyrical and melodical genius across a wide spectrum of instruments.
He doesn’t just play his instruments, he becomes one with them, putting his heart and soul into every note. He kept the band movin’ and groovin’ at a fast pace and everyone stepped up their game. We all danced in our seats to the burning tempo of Pent Up House, the first cut off Jerry’s swingin’ smokin’ CD, “Walkin With the Wazmo”. Jerry delighted the attentive crowd with his robust earthy tone and Louis Armstrong like tenor style. He joked with us about the middle child syndrome and being confused with his brother, Jimmy. “The title of my next CD will be “The Jerry Vivino Quartet ? Don’t Call Me Jimmy”.
The crowd adored Jerry’s remarkable crooning on Sunny Side of the Street, and he had them barking like dogs each time he sang the word ’rover’.
Frequently acknowledging the expertise of his band members, Jerry allowed them ample time for their divine solos. At one point, Jerry, Mike, and James walked off the stage as Scott tickled the ivories with his magnificence and beautifully complex texture of chording. The audience was mesmerized. Several local musicians were grateful and enthusiastic when Jerry asked them to join the band, starting with vocalist Brooke Lundy, who belted out “At Last” with her powerhouse voice.
She told me, “When Jerry’s taking a solo, it sounds like a record, only with a band like this where they’re all pros. I sit back and say wow it’s like being on a record.”
Drummer Craig Pilo, who played with Jerry in Frankie Valli’s band, sat in on Sonny Rollins’ St. Thomas, and said “I always love playing with Jerry and hopefully we’ll get to play a lot more.”
During the second set, superb vocalist, Denise Donatelli, sang My Romance. Denise brought her son, a big Conan fan, who enjoyed Jerry and the band, and got a kick out of seeing his mom sing with them.
Vocalist Michael Dees sang Day In Day Out, and told me it was a great experience. “Singing with excellent professional musicians is always a pleasure.”
Bob Comden, writer for LA Jazz Scene, described the quartet as fresh and exciting. “They put on one hell of a show, not to be missed.” Alan Gruskoff, bass player for Steely Jam, was glad to see the band, coming from the NY jazz scene, at a comfort level in LA. “I’ve admired them with the Max Weinberg 7 for the past ten years.” April Williams, who runs the Red Carpet Jazz Series, Upstairs at Vitello’s, only books top of the line acts. She is a gracious hostess, always making sure the musicians are comfortable and have everything they need. The Thursday Jazz Series, which opened in February, has become one of the hottest spots in town.
“I am pleased to have Jerry Vivino as part of our own landscape. I salute musicians, and these are fine musicians, who have practiced every day for 6-8 hours since they were 6 years old, just to perform here for three hours. My father, Maurie Harris, played trumpet with Doc Severinson’s band for 22 years. If he were alive, today he’d be so proud of this next generation of the Tonight Show Band.”
Debra Graff is a Los Angeles based music critic, writer, musician, piano/keyboard teacher, promoter, and lawyer.>
She covers the Los Angeles entertainment scene for a variety of publications and we welcome her as a contributor to this site.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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