John Daversa is not a new name in Los Angeles but it took this writer a few years to finally go see his aptly-named Progressive Big Band play one of their Sunday night residency shows at the historic Baked Potato in Studio City. The packed house had a very youthful look; many of the audience members sipped on non-spiked Diet Cokes and Sprites without a scrap of irony. The room buzzed with excitement and discussion of the 17-member big band. The audience was not only there to listen, they were there to learn.
As soon as the curly-haired band leader stepped in front of the stage, the audience hushed and the small room filled with a fast and complex bebop-esque tune featuring Katisse Buckingham on alto saxophone. Although there was furious sheet music page-turning throughout the song, the musicians were dynamic and completely in sync. So, it was surprising to watch Daversa move from his spot just left of the band risers to in front of the band, spiritedly conducting them during the song’s main melodies. Then, just as suddenly as he began, Daversa stopped conducting and went back to his two-by-two square, kneeling and allowing the musicians take over their own leadership. Daversa announced the first tune as called “Fast and Direct,” which was followed by humored acknowledgments by the audience.
“Fast and Direct” is part of a suite written by Daversa, which he followed with another part called “Camels.” Drummer Jamey Tate began the song solo, creating the feeling of a slow stroll. Bassist Jerry Watts joined in and then gradually each horn row layered on top of the bobbing tempo. Solos by Paul Young (trombone) and Buckingham (flute) created an audio narrative of different camels out in the desert.
The third tune was written by Daversa during a hospital stay in 1995. “Missing Platelets” opened with a trumpet solo, followed by drums, and then the rest of the band under the conducting of alto player Jeff Driskill. The bridge of the song embodies the idea that this is a “contemporary” or “progressive” big band because it launched the audience into an airy, disembodied atmosphere, reminiscent of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. “Missing Platelets” showcased the rhythm section, composed of Tate, Watts and guitarist Andrew Syncowiec. The tune felt completely improvised but came together at the end with a rousing solo by trumpeter Bijon Watson.
One of the beautiful things about the Baked Potato, aside from its intimacy and the ludicrously large loaded baked potatoes they make, is the amazing sound quality. Mixing such a large band in a small space is an art and the doorman/sound mixer is a true artist. Only once did he leave his post at the door to make a seemingly minor adjustment at the sound console.
Daversa took the set’s intensity down a notch with “Old Timer,” a song dedicated to the newly-deceased trumpeter Snookie Young. The blues was very laid back and mellow. The trombone section employed very large mutes to create a warm, yet distant and sad sound. It was a touching tribute.
If “Old Timer” brought the audience to a reflective state of mind, “Some Happy Shit” catapulted them into the future. Daversa soloed at the beginning of the song, but not with his trumpet. He played an electronic valve instrument (EVI) that sounds like a keyboard but looks like an electrified woodwind with frets and a circular bell that rotates. Apparently, those instruments have been around for a long time and are either made with trumpet or saxophone fingering. “Some Happy Shit” was a bright but odd Latin-influenced tune. The key changed every few bars, making it exciting, spastic and also very conversational with the call and response soling by bassist Watts.
As with all of his introductions, Daversa told silly anecdotes about his fellow band mates. He also had a tendency to wave his hands over the heads of his soloists to enlist applause. However, his silliness melted away as he launched into his performance, standing very still as his solos took flight. Each of his compositions had many different movements, like in the classical genre, but the incredible improvisation of all the musicians planted the performance firmly in jazz.
Daversa introduced the final song of the first set, “The Bridge,” as named after the Los Angeles recording studio, and even pointed out the studio’s owner in the audience. Daversa also prefaced that saxophone/flute player Buckingham would provide vocals to the tune. They launched into the song with a big sustained chord, followed by the unsettling syncopation of jazz fusion. Before anyone could predict it, the syncopation turned into a hip hop beat and Buckingham stood up, taking the microphone to rap. It’s unclear if the rap was improvised but Daversa and Buckingham traded solos, which electrifying the audience, young and old. This song really epitomized the idea that all contemporary American music evolved from jazz.
The rest of the band included Phil O’Connor, Tom Peterson, Bob Carr (saxophones), Ron King, Glenda Smith, Rob Schaer (trumpets), Bill Booth, Charlie Morillas, and George Thatcher (trombones).
The John Daversa Big Band plays every last Sunday of the month at the Baked Potato. Go see them to be inspired and entertained, while eating the biggest baked potato of your life.