Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bill Berry

One of the outstanding big bands of the 1970s, Bill Berry’s LA Band was rich in talented soloists, powerful in execution, and dedicated in its approach. Sadly, it was barely recorded although many off-air and private recordings exist and I count myself lucky in having several of these. Officially, only two albums were released, Hello Rev (Concord Jazz CJ CCD 4023) and the almost impossible to find vinyl, Hot 'n' Happy (Beez 1), the latter on Bill Berry’s own label. The CD incarnation of Hello Rev is therefore a ‘must have’ for all lovers of big band jazz at its fiery best. Soloists include Blue Mitchell, Cat Anderson, Jack Sheldon, Jimmy Cleveland, Tricky Lofton, Richie Kamuca, Marshal Royal and Dave Frishberg. This album almost matches the awesome experience of hearing the band live.

I heard the band live just once, at Carmelo’s, a Los Angeles jazz club. That night, the band included Sheldon, Cleveland, Kamuca and Frishberg, as well as Pete and Conte Candoli, Bob Efford, Jack Nimitz, Monty Budwig and Frank Capp among a truly star-studded personnel. If only more of my memories were made of evenings like this.
Bill Berry also led small groups and they have fared a little better in the CD age. Of these Shortcake (Concord Jazz CJ CCD 4075) also abounds in distinguished soloists, including Marshal Royal, Lew Tabackin, Bill Watrous and Dave Frishberg and additionally is marked by ingenious and witty charts. In the 1990s, Bill Berry and his wife Betty organized the Pacific Jazz Party, a richly rewarding trans-oceanic collaboration between musicians from America and Japan. The fine mainstream set, Jazz Party (Jazz Cook JCCD 1003) is one result of this meeting of musical minds. Cornetist Bill co-leads with his counterpart, clarinetist Eiji Kitamura, and they are joined by tenor saxophonist Sam Sadigursky and a pulsating rhythm section that draws from both countries: pianist Kotaro Tsukahara and the veteran bass and drums team of Ray Brown and Jake Hanna. Then there is Live at Capozzoli’s (Woofy WPCD 54), which was recorded during a late 1990s Las Vegas club date. The uncommon front line of Bill’s cornet and Jack Nimitz’s baritone saxophone lend interesting textures to a nice selection of numbers, most of which are standards.

Bill Berry's death, in November 2002, brought to an end a personal friendship that existed between us since the late 1970s. I miss Bill but count myself lucky to have known him and to have heard him play many times live, with various small bands and that never-to-be-forgotten occasion with his mighty big band. At least, we still have the records, all of which exemplify something Bill once observed: “You can be 100% serious about music, and still have fun.”

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