Lucy's 51 is a classic Toluca Lake spot, one still haunted by the gently jiving spirits of high times and late nights long since past.
This room on Riverside Drive has a formidable history: Its previous incarnation was venerable jazz club the Money Tree, a legendary joint where Hollywood musical giants like pianist Page Cavanaugh, trumpeter Jack Sheldon and drummer Earl Palmer bewitched audiences decades ago. It's also the spot where actor-jazz fan Jack Webb schemed the scandalous romantic acquisition of singer Julie London away from her husband Bobby Troup, the legendary singer-pianist who composed “Route 66.” Atmosphere the place does not lack — the very air itself seems charged with a joyous spectral voltage.
Lucy's recently instituted a steady policy of live jazz and blues performances, and Sunday evenings have become the exclusive domain of acclaimed six-string pyro-technician, author and educator Steve Trovato. Known around the world as “The Country Jazzmaster,” Trovato's masterly technique, intoxicating spontaneity and mesmerizing choice of material never fail to dazzle, and these swinging Sabbaths have quickly become the premier local destination for winding down the weekend's frolic.
At Lucy's, it's a pretty rough-and-tumble affair. Trovato's approach and demeanor seem very loose, casual, but he bears down on each number with a sweetly aggressive style. A request for Patsy Cline's “Walkin' After Midnight” evokes a raunchy, low-down instrumental workout, followed by a caustic throw-down with keyboardist Phil Parlapiano's cutting, funky vocals on the Bob Dylan “Music from Big Pink” enigma “Maggie's Farm.”
Trovato will next turn around and perform a hauntingly evocative, minor-keyed study in gypsy jazz atmospherics, the move onto a roaring country rocker in the vein of his friend and influence Albert Lee. The kaleidoscopic mixture and genre-hopping range is at once exhilarating and soothing, handily ranking him — along with Parlapiano, drummer Lynn Coulter and bassist Moses Sparks — as one of the most accomplished and emotionally affecting musical combos working in the area.
His distinguished career as a teacher, currently writing the curriculum for and serving as senior lecturer of Studio/Jazz Guitar and Popular Music at the prestigious USC Thornton School of Music, actually began as a fluke, one focusing on a style with which Trovato had little practical experience.
“It was an accident really,” Trovato said. “I was in a classroom at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, where I was enrolled as a student, and decided to play a country-style song. So I put ‘Yakety Axe' together with another song, ‘Root Beer Rag,' which is actually a Billy Joel tune — I played them both and the owner happened to be giving a tour to two potential students. They walked in while I was playing. When I finished they went back to the office and the students said ‘If you tell us that we can learn to play like that guy, we'll sign up right now!'
“So the owner thought I was a country guitar god and wanted to appoint me as the country music instructor. This was an amazing opportunity, of course, but I hesitated. Then, I consulted [guitar great] Tommy Tedesco and he said, ‘Just say yes. Nobody really knows how to teach it anyway, and all you really have to do is stay one step ahead of the students.'
“That's how I got the country guitar handle, which is fine — but it's not really what I do.”
From there, the longtime Pasadena resident went on to not only teach but also wrote numerous textbooks and instructional manuals. “I've written probably 35 or 40 books for Hale Leonard, Warner Bros. Music,” Trovato explained, “but after all of that I said, ‘Enough! I need to concentrate on playing more.'”
His residency at Lucy's 51 is a fine setting for all that playing, with a set that he says is governed by an “expect-the-unexpected policy.”
“Almost every song is a different style, an entirely different approach,” Trovato explains. “It sounds like a different guitarist up there. I think a lot of people, in this computer age of immediate access and gratification, has reduced the attention span, and I believe that giving people a change of pace where we change the entire mindset every couple of songs, is a very successful way to go.”
Considering the profound depth and impressive breadth of Trovato's subtle, freewheeling talent, that rates as a drastic understatement. “Whenever I get an opportunity, like this job at Lucy's 51, it's about perseverance and determination. I've gone after it with vim and vigor. I don't pussyfoot around. It's in my heart and soul, and yes, I am an aggressive player — I just go after it. I've always done that. I've got a great band, I'm promoting it, hustling it and bringing in a good amount of people. It's a blast, a lot of fun, and I love it. So we just need to get some more folks out and it'll be really be something.”
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of “Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox” and “Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story.”
Steve Trovato appears at Lucy's 51
Where: 10149 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake
When: Every Sunday in September, 8 to 11 p.m. Free.
Contact: (818) 763-5200