Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Mike Lang Trio at Catalina's

On Friday, June 4, 2010, I had the pleasure of hearing The Mike Lang Trio at Catalina's Bar and Grill (6725 Sunset Blvd.) in Hollywood. A well-known studio recording musician, Lang has more than 45 years of professional work behind him and is still one of the busiest and hardest working guys in show business. One of the most recorded keyboardists heard on film, television, and commercial recordings internationally today, few know his name, even though they certainly know his playing. In many respects, Mike is a "musician's musician"--many of his most avid fans are other musicians who know exactly what it takes to make it all sound so smooth and easy.

With Michael Valerio on bass (known as a versatile player in classical, pop, and jazz) and drummer Jimmy Paxson (long associated with Stevie Nicks, Alanis Morisette, among others), The Mike Lang Trio did a single set, beginning with Mancini's "Days of Wine and Roses." Lang knew Mancini, played in Mancini recording sessions, and recorded an entire disc of Mancini tunes in 1994 on the Varese Sarabande label (currently available for digital download from iTunes).

Sensitive and expressive, Paxson always goes for the gradations of colors and textures that best support the music, listening carefully to everything happening around him; sometimes using his hands lightly on the drum heads, large fuzzy mallets for long sustained cymbal rolls, and whatever else might be needed at the moment. Lang said that he has learned a lot by playing with Valerio and that says a lot about Valerio's musicianship. Valerio pleased the audience with his glorious acoustic bass playing, but less would have been more in some passages. I would have preferred a richer sound when he played electric bass--more like what we heard on his acoustic bass. Lang's playing is clean, balanced, economical, yet he knows how to intensify the playing, thickening up the textures and giving it full force when required. It is this dynamic range and power that makes him a joy to experience, but I love his playing most when it is gentle and introspective. Lang produces a gorgeous, even tone at the piano, but at Catalina's it was perhaps mic-ed too close for comfort, making it sound unnecessarily harsh at times.

Bebop jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's tune, "Little Sunflower," started out with bass, after Lang acknowledged that legendary percussionist Emil Richards had inspired him to revisit the tune from the 1960s. Next they put three tunes back to back in honor of Bill Evans: "Peace Piece" (Bill Evans), "Flamenco Sketches" (Miles Davis-Bill Evans, 1959) and "Some Other Time" (Leonard Bernstein). This was followed by the old standard "All the Things You Are (Jerome Kern) which demonstrated the brilliant agility of the trio.

In honor of Jerry Goldsmith's widow, Carol, who was in the audience, the trio played music from the film "The Edge" which had served as the end title for Jerry's score (Mike Lang is heard on the original improvised track). Next they played Mike Lang's heartfelt tune "Mandela, " dedicated to Africa and Nelson Mandela. The tune begins as a freedom anthem, turns into a gospel number, and becomes a funky dance tune. Lang needs to get this down on a recording and get it into a film before someone takes it from him--it is that good. I first heard it when Mike played it with bassist Abraham Laboriel, Jr. at an ASMAC luncheon (American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers) in the fall, 2009, and loved it then, too. The set ended with one of Lang's favorites, "My Funny Valentine," paired with Leon Russell's "A Song for You."

The audience was right there with the trio from the first note until the last, applauding enthusiastically throughout the set, including a whole host of astoundingly good musicians like Ralph Grierson, Don Davis, Jimmy Bond (Wrecking Crew bass), composer/pianist Ric Mandel, British sax player/composer John Altman, among others. You can hear Mike on Tuesday night, June 15 at 8 pm at Charlie O's with John Altman's band. (Thanks to Pierre Andre for allowing me to use his photo here from the show.)

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