Florence’s Group Delivers Stellar Night of Big-Band Jazz

Lovers of big-band jazz should say a daily prayer for the Moonlight Tango Cafe. A prayer appealing for the continuing economic good health of the attractive, Art Deco Sherman Oaks room that has been showcasing some of the Southland’s finest large jazz ensembles every Tuesday night for years.

This week, the featured band was Bob Florence’s Limited Edition in a performance celebrating the release of the group’s latest album, “Earth” on MAMA Records. Florence couldn’t have asked for a bigger turnout. But the packed house included some tough listeners--among them legendary bandleader Artie Shaw and the much-praised composer-arranger Johnny Mandel.

Undeterred by the heavy ears in the crowd, perhaps even stimulated by them, Florence’s large (18 pieces) congregation of instrumentalists performed the leader’s complex charts with an easy facility, a sturdy sense of swing and some first-rate soloing. Mandel had to be pleased with Florence’s imaginative setting of the composer’s film theme “Emily” and the manner in which Florence transformed its floating melody into a brisk, medium tempo groove.

Other highlights--many from the new album--included a piquantly dissonant version of Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy,” showcasing a superb, plunger-muted solo from trumpeter George Graham. There was a brisk, up-tempo original, filled with difficult, contrapuntal ensemble passages, titled “Willis,” in honor of the master of multilinear big-band arrangements, Bill Holman. And, as a kind of climactic high point, there was a meter-shifting tribute to the energy and the vitality of the Big Apple in “New York Injection.”


Good stuff, all of it, performed with remarkable accuracy to detail. And, in fact, the only flaw in an otherwise fine evening of big-band jazz was a lack of the sort of solid, ensemble voice. Even Florence’s great mastery of jazz-band orchestration couldn’t invest the performance with the kind of truly intuitive interplay that comes from regular opportunities to work together.

Still, that’s a small carp in an otherwise entertaining evening of music. Even the hard-to-please Shaw said after the gig that the Florence band was one of the best he’d ever heard. High praise, indeed, but well-deserved.