Talented pianist Ed Vodicka fronted his big band, which was roaring all night, then added the delightful vocalist Marlene VerPlanck for an extra special evening of jazz. When I arrived at 7:30 the room was already packed with a happy buzz as patrons ate dinner and enjoyed grown-up beverages. There was a definite excitement in the air, as vocalist Marlene VerPlanck was making a rare West Coast appearance.
After a funny introduction by the bartender, Mike Dusalt, Vodicka went right to work on his own arrangement of “It Might As Well Be Spring,” which was clever and very effective. Billy Kerr took the first solo on alto sax and the band sounded like they were ready & rarin’ to go. The band consisted of: Ron King, Jack Feierman, Mike McGuffey, Bill Dowling – trumpets; Mike Wimberly, Jack Redmond, Les Benedict, Roy Wiegand – trombones; George Harper, Billy Kerr, Tom Peterson, Rusty Higgins – saxes; Kirk Smith – bass and Kendall Kay – drums. Billy Strayhorn’s “My Little Brown Book” got off to a smooth start with a short but sweet solo from Bill Dowling’s trumpet. The band sounded energized and cohesive, very bright. Vodicka did a great job as MC, with humorous introductions and commentary. Strayhorn’s “Daydream” was so dulcet in tone, a big, rich sound emerged from the ensemble playing of this remarkable band. No solos but it was a simply wonderful version. Vodicka is a strong pianist who brings a nice jazz jazz sensibilty to his play, managing to stand out among the riotous band, as he did on “Surrey With The Fringe On Top.” Back by a strong rhythm section, everyone is free to fly. A trombone ensemble chorus was smooth and silky in another excellent arrangement by Ed Vodicka.
I had never heard VerPlanck in person and it was quite a revelation. Vodicka introduced her and it was obvious that she had many fans in the room. She vocalized immediately on “I Wish On The Moon” as the big band took an aggressive stance behind her. I think her microphone could have been a bit louder; I thought the band was in danger of swamping her. Not to worry, she had her own way of doing things. On “Taking A Chance on Love” VerPlanck enunciated well so her delivery was crisp and clear. She continued despite the big sound behind her. She changed the modulation and emphasis of her voice to “out fox” the band, so to speak. “Jamaica Rhumba” was terrific and it reminded me of the old, glamourous night clubs in Hollywood, where people dressed up to dine and dance to the great big bands and featured singers of the past. I wasn’t personally there, but it was well depicted in so many films over the years. VerPlanck held her own nicely. In a nod to Saxamania, a group whe worked with (in France), the sax section was featured on “You Turned the Tables On Me.” I was reminded of LA’s own beloved Supersax band. VerPlanck sings with authority and great confidence. She’s an attractive lady who frankly, “owns the stage.” She doesn’t over emote, but puts the right emphasis on a phrase, a word. The crowd loved the band and the singer; the whole program brought forth enthusiastic applause. Kirk Smith used his wonderful bass strings to introduce “All The Things You Are,” as VerPlanck used a quiet voice, for a marvelous long intro. The audience was so quiet, so respectful of VerPlank’s artistry. Her voice was compelling, as it enveloped the room. After a second chorus she upped the energy and the band burst forth to accompany her. Again, she changed the tempo to quiet everything down. There’s no doubt she and and Vodicka are directing this large group of feisty musicians. Bold and brassy ensemble work kicked off “So Long Sadness.” The band was quite brilliant and Les Benedict added a short but dynamic trombone solo. VerPlanck sang, “So long sadness, goodbye” in almost a whisper. The crowd erupted in applause. She turned to compliment Vodicka and he joked, “I’m just working my way through welding school! ”VerPlanck gave “Body and Soul” extra drama as her soft voice caressed the lyrics, “I’m all for you, body and soul.” Vodicka accompanied her with a deft touch, sensitive, restrained, yet so in the moment, it took my breath away. His solo quieted the room for a few moments before VerPlanck continued. I must say, her voice grew on me, song by song. The last few words of the song were exquisite. Going from the sublime to the jaunty, “Little Jazz Bird” was electrifying with precise playing from the band. Steve Allen’s “Go Fly A Kite” was a swingy outing for VerPlanck and the band. She vocalized in the upper riegister quite a lot, ending on a very high note. Backed by just the rhythm section for a bit, VerPlanck sang “Close Your Eyes” to a rapt audience. She doesn’t scat, but rather vocalizes, then picked up the lyrics again. The whole band backed her with finesse as VerPlanck shows she’s the consummate pro, from beginning to end.
Johnny Mercer’s “Day In, Day Out” moved quickly and sounded just a bit rushed. VerPlanck sounded almost overwhelmed but she changes the dynamics so there are breaks in the wall of sound behind her. She simply holds her own, no matter what is happening. Vodicka praised Billy VerPlanck for the wonderful arrangements. From the show, Life Is Not Like The Movies, VerPlanck sang “The Lies Of Handsome Men” with so much authority and charm. This was the first time I had ever heard the tune which was very clever and interesting. Yes, the audience loved Marlene Ver Planck, giving her a rousing farewell as she left the stage. The tiny, chic woman had just given a big audience a lesson in singing from the heart, the soul. Bravo to her, to Ed Vodicka and the band! It was just marvelous!