JAZZ REVIEWS : Isham Scores Off-Screen Too


Composer Mark Isham has amassed a list of movie soundtracks impressive in both size and scope. It includes the sultry backdrop for director Alan Rudolph’s “The Moderns”; considered, orchestral pieces for “A River Runs Through It” (nominated for an Academy Award and a Grammy); industrial-strength, techno-beat moods for Hilary Henkin’s recent film noir adventure “Romeo Is Bleeding,” and jazz-era swing and ballad sounds designed for Robert Redford’s upcoming “Quiz Show.” All feature Isham’s trumpet playing.

So what does Isham do to relax? He gets together with friends, as he did Saturday at Randell’s, and plays jazz. Concentrating on standards, the trumpeter-fluegelhornist showed that writing music for the big screen isn’t his only talent.

Isham, who has appeared infrequently in Los Angeles clubs over the past several years and has released a handful of albums under his own name, began as an economically melodic player. But he has expanded his skills to the point where he now recalls the aggressiveness of a young Freddie Hubbard, the off-beat witticism of the late Lee Morgan and the bop ambition of Clifford Brown. There’s some of Miles Davis’ lyrical emotion in his playing, but delivered in cleaner fashion. Put them all together and you have one impressive sound.

On Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance,” Isham’s transparent tonal quality and sensitive delivery recalled veteran fluegel man Johnny Coles’ many outings with Hancock. His work on “How Long Has This Been Going On?” was sweet, thought-provoking and sounded over a wide tonal range. Playing trumpet on the be-bop classic “Au Privave,” he scatted with strength and agility, often squeezing off notes in the upper register as he completed a particularly ambitious phrase.



Though all these tunes are well-worn, Isham’s combo brought fresh, contemporary colors to them, thanks especially to Chick Corea drummer Gary Novak and guitarist Steve Cardenas. Novak’s insistent, hard-hitting attack gave everything a modern slant, while Cardenas’ spare, singing accompaniment and pointed soloing supplied doses of mystery and hard reality.

As Cardenas’ electricity gave the show an edge, bassist Jeff Littleton’s acoustic bass gave it a traditional anchor with firm rhythmic and melodic touches. He was especially impressive during “Au Privave,” taking a solo that walked quickly and without pause through a constantly changing landscape of phrases.

Saxophonist Steve Tavaglione’s tone on soprano gave a polished, honey-colored flavor to everything it touched. On tenor for “Dolphin Dance,” Tavaglione employed quiet volumes to make his statements, recalling Joe Henderson’s more understated efforts.


One of the least familiar numbers was one of the best: saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s “The Song My Lady Sings” (Isham worked with Lloyd in the ‘70s). Playing fluegel, Isham was particularly warm and heartfelt, while Tavaglione employed flute for a brief, dance-like solo and some cleanly sounded unison play with Isham.

At the close of the set, Novak set up a rollicking, Latin-feel pace that saw him employing the entirety of his drum set as the other musicians traded anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better lines. Then, with the pace unabated, the group sounded the theme to “Old Devil Moon” at a tempo--arranged by another old Isham crony, saxophonist Dave Liebman--that would give Tony Bennett a coronary. There were fine solos all around before Isham cooled the tune with some lines reminiscent of the Miles Davis-Gil Evans “Sketches of Spain” session and brought it to an end. You might say it was an Oscar-worthy performance.