Joe Vento had a peculiar glint in his eye as he switched on his synthesizer, which is capable of producing unusual sounds. He pressed a key. A Concorde jet blasted through the room to the pitch of E-flat, nearly yanking the carpet tacks from the floor.
"You can even hear the wind going through the turbos!" Vento, a stocky, gray-haired man, shouted over the din, sliding the roar up and down the scale. "Now here's a takeoff!"
A helicopter chopped the air in A-sharp. Later, karate kicks flew around to the tune of "Twilight Time," and dogs barked in ascending minor chords. In a corner, a statue of a beagle from the RCA gramophone trademark "His Master's Voice" seemed to cock his head a bit farther to the right.
"I'm just like a kid with this, aren't I?" Vento said as he discovered what a sonic boom sounded like when played to the tune of "Silent Night."
"I was happy as a child, too," he said.
With a reporter in his Simi Valley home or giving a command performance at the White House (as he did for Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy), Joe Vento is always on .
Perhaps best known for his 23-year association with the jazz group The Three Suns, Vento, 62, now assembles musicians for his touring company, "Joe Vento's Jazz Allstars," which recently played at the Hyatt Westlake Plaza Hotel. During June, he will perform at New Orleans West in Westlake Village from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, with an additional shift from 3 to 7 p.m. Saturdays.
The Three Suns, which began in 1942, recorded 17 gold and five platinum records, including "Twilight Time," "Peg O' My Heart," "Don't Take Your Love From Me," "Perdido" and "Moonlight in Vermont." The group sold nearly 40 million records.
It played with such jazz greats as Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
It played for the late Emperor Hirohito and his oldest son, then-Crown Prince Akihito, at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
"Akihito is a jazz aficionado," Vento said. "He sat with us and played the saxophone. He really dug it."
Vento played the piano for the trio from 1950 to 1974. The Suns had discovered him on an Arthur Godfrey Show talent contest in 1950 when, in a blindfold and white silk gloves, he played "Flight of the Bumblebee" on an accordion draped in black silk.
"They noticed me," Vento said, shrugging his shoulders.
"People say I get carried away," Vento recently remarked in his home. "I start jumping up and down like I'm going to soar into the heavens."
"Sort of like Liberace on the accordion" is how Bob Vincent, Vento's former manager, describes him.
But the accordion is just one of about 60 instruments that Vento plays, according to a listing in the 1989 Musicians' Union Directory, used as a talent resource for television and film studios.
His versatility made him a frequent performer in hundreds of movies and television shows. His den is papered with photographs of celebrities he has worked with through the years--Paul Newman, Ann-Margret, Dean Martin, Liberace and Elvis Presley.
Two recent acquisitions are signed photographs from Harry Anderson and Markie Post of "Night Court." Dressed as a Buffalo Lodge member, Vento plunked out "Buffalo Gal, Won't Ya Come Out Tonight" on a recently taped episode of the show.
Other TV credits include "Dallas," "Dynasty" and as a regular ("the guy in the Jeep") on "McHale's Navy." "I'm still collecting pennies from residuals after all these years," Vento said.
Vento's jazz ensembles are booked on cruise ships about six weeks each year, and several months are spent touring Europe and playing local gigs. Vento plays piano, sometimes throwing in an accordion solo, and musicians such as Bert Dahlander, Bobby Rosengarden and Bucky Pizzarelli frequently join him.
"I guess you could say we're both hams," said Dahlander, a jazz drummer from Sweden who joins Vento at least once a year. "We're very conscious of playing for the people. If people respond, then we'll give a little more."
Bob Arlow, a Thousand Oaks resident, grew up in New York City listening to Vento and the Three Suns at Greenwich Village jazz clubs. Last year, Arlow rediscovered what he terms the "wonderful old days of jazz emporiums in Manhattan" when he heard Vento play at the Hyatt.
"Unfortunately, there's a great scarcity of Joe's kind of music--wonderful, melodic jazz," Arlow said. "He doesn't have to electrify it or beat you over the head with cacophony that passes for music. He can move from the blues to upbeat jazz to bossa nova to the old torch songs. He covers the whole gamut of music."
In one corner of Vento's den hangs a picture of Vento, strapped to his accordion, playing for the troops in South Vietnam.
During a 1967 USO performance, Vento was blown off the stage by an enemy mortar rocket. "I was right in the middle of my solo, and a bomb dropped," he said, appearing more disappointed about not finishing the solo than about his right shoulder being ripped open.
He went on to complete the tour and endured pain for many years, preferring not to undergo a risky operation that could have reduced the pain but would have severed nerves and thus destroyed his career. "I was buying time for greater technical advances," he said.
In January, 1988, satisfied that those advances had arrived, Vento had shoulder surgery and was back on stage in August.
"I've got pain," Vento acknowledged. "But when I perform, it's like I'm under hypnosis. I feel it, but I don't, because I'm so engrossed. But when I'm finished, the pain comes back. My intent is to make the public happy. I keep the pain within myself."
Vento launched into detail about his operation, talking of "arthroscopic decompression," "cuff lesions" and his "neurocirculatory status."
"I want to know what's wrong with me," he said, leafing through medical journals that he had checked out from the library. "I'm very analytical; I have to know about everything. I'm just naturally curious."
Vento, who was raised in Los Angeles, first took an interest in music at age 2 1/2, when his father, a studio musician, placed a violin one-fourth the standard size in his arms.
"My dad would take me in front of a symphony orchestra," Vento said. "I would stand up close and see how the violins would mingle with the brass. I would dissect and observe how it all worked."
At 12, Vento entered his first music school. "The teacher said, 'I don't know where to put you,' " Vento recalled. "So the teacher said, 'Why don't you just take half the class and grade the papers?' "
The Juilliard School of Music in New York accepted Vento on a scholarship when he was 15.
He lived with his aunt in Hoboken, N.J., for two years and returned to Los Angeles, where he began playing bit parts in movies, beginning with "Anchors Aweigh."
Now, Vento said, he sometimes plays at weddings and birthdays and volunteers his animated style at children's hospitals. "I love to see sad little faces turn into smiles," he said. "I love to turn emotions around."
Vento, in his living room, eased himself behind a 100-year-old Chickory concert grand and played a curious arrangement of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" and Cole Porter's "Night and Day."
His body leaned into the notes as his eyes trailed invisible notes flying around the room. He occasionally rose off the bench, as if in momentary levitation from an especially moving chord. Later, "What Kind of Fool Am I?" was mixed with Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet."
"You have to break your audience down," Vento explained, shaking the ache from his arm as he slipped into his accordion for yet another song. "You look them square in the eyes until they can feel the love."