LIVE REVIEW OF TOM RANIER TRIO TRIBUTE TO ARTIE SHAW – March 26, 2017
By jazz journalist/Dee Dee McNeil
When I have a scheduled gig, I usually don’t plan to do anything else on that date except sing. I’m not sure people realize how much energy it takes to entertain. We musicians give so much of ourselves to others, and we are so appreciative when we receive the love back at our concerts. So usually, I conserve my energy on a day I have to perform in order to bring my best. However, on this particular Sunday afternoon, I broke my rule, because I was eager to hear the music of Tom Ranier, Ron Escheté and Luther Hughes at a private jazz salon in Huntington Beach. Their concert was held earlier than my gig. It started at 2pm and ended at 4:30pm and I would be just minutes away from Baci’s Italian Restaurant, located in the same beach city where I would be working.
I drove 2 hours to get to the California Jazz Arts Society (Cal JAS) event. If you live in Los Angeles, you judge car travel by time rather than mileage distance. Most of the travel time is due to terrible and congested traffic on multiple freeways. I thought I had left early enough to arrive promptly; but I was late, and walked into the Hughes home a few minutes after two. The concert was already in progress. The place was packed and the trio was playing “Lady Be Good” as I tip-toed into their living room. Tom Ranier was sitting behind an electric piano, holding a clarinet to his lips and sounding amazing. The concept of the concert was to celebrate the talents and legacy of Artie Shaw, while raising money for the California Jazz Arts Society. I slid onto one of only three chairs available in the packed room. Sitting against the wall, by the front door, a strong spring wind tousled my hair and cooled the attentive audience. Luther Hughes welcomed me with a wink, as he dug into his solo on double bass.
In between songs, Tom Ranier shared interesting antidotes about Artie Shaw, colored by his obvious admiration for his departed friend and mentor. He told us that he actually bought Shaw’s mouthpiece on EBay. Shaw was working professionally at sixteen-years-old, inspired by Louie Armstrong. Ranier explained that Artie seemed to be a troubled soul early on, who had eight wives during his lifetime, including famed actress Lana Turner, and was in and out of the music business; quitting then coming back again.
Next, the Ranier trio tackled “Rose Room,” a composition that reflects the same chord changes as Duke Ellington’s tune, “In A Mellow Tone”. It was eerie listening to the similarity of the two songs. The trio incorporated both songs into their arrangement, with Ron Escheté sounding creative and spontaneous on guitar and Luther Hughes echoing the melody line of “In A Mellow Tone” on his upright bass. “Rose Room” was written by Art Hickman, with lyrics by Harry Williams, to celebrate the famed room of the White House in the United States. It’s a 1917 jazz standard and enjoyed huge popularity during the Swing Era. Duke Ellington is credited with reviving the popular composition in 1932. Seven years later, Ellington adopted the chord changes and wrote “In A Mellow Tone”. So, the story goes, Charlie Christian made an indelible mark on jazz history when he impressed Benny Goodman, jamming his ‘Rose Room’ solo for nearly forty-five minutes. But it was Artie Shaw who first made the song popular.
Luther introduced his wife and vocalist, Becky Hughes, to sing the next song that recalled another popular recording of Artie Shaw. She performed “Deep Purple,” beautifully reiterating an original arrangement by Peggy Lee. This was followed by the band playing, “Dancing on the Ceiling” at a moderate tempo, and Ranier’s trio really made it ‘Swing.’
President of the Cal JAS organization, Dale Boatman, took to the microphone next to interpret “Day In Day Out” with his smooth baritone vocals.
Tom Ranier moved effortlessly from joining Escheté and Hughes on piano or picking up the clarinet and celebrating Artie Shaw. He gave us brief and not-so-brief anecdotes about the iconic musician’s life. It was a delightful way to share music history and I sat there thinking what a wonderful program this would be for junior high and high school students, to introduce them to jazz and the artists who made jazz unforgettably important to the world.
Set two began with “Begin the Beguine,” a huge big band success for Artie Shaw and his orchestra. Back-tracking a bit, a conversation had developed when the band played “Dancing on the Ceiling.” It was about Fred Astaire and his unforgettable dance number in the MGM film, “Royal Wedding,” where he dances on the walls and ceiling of a room. Astaire also danced to “Begin the Beguine” with Eleanor Powell. Tom Ranier told us that Fred Astaire was of Austrian and Russian decent and his actual name was Frederick Austerlitz. I didn’t know that. Speaking of given names, Artie Shaw’s actual birth name was Arthur Jacob Arshawsky.
Luther reminded the attentive audience that his friend and fellow musician, Tom Ranier, is not only a great pianist and clarinetist, but he is also a gifted arranger who has worked on the popular television show, “Dancing with the Stars” and has also arranged music for the Academy Awards, the Emmy and Golden Globe Award shows. Not to mention he has arranged sound tracks for Barbra Streisand, Shirley Bassey, Christina Aguilera, Joe Pass, Barry Manilow and Natalie Cole to name just a sprinkling of the artists he has worked with. Then, we went back to the music at hand.
On Begin the Beguine”, his arrangement set the tempo as a Bolero. Then smooth as Bengali silk, his clarinet melody captivated us. This song was Shaw’s great hit and every audience where he performed it, demanded he play it over and over again. It’s remains as compelling as ever.
Afterwards, Ranier suggested we find the documentary on Artie Shaw called “Time Is All You’ve Got”. He said Artie sued the producer of that film. There is also a Youtube.com viewing available of a documentary called “The Quest for Perfection” with actual interviews given by Artie Shaw. I went right home and enjoyed reviewing the documentaries. One thing I had always heard about Artie Shaw was that he hired Billie Holiday and other black musicians like Roy Eldridge, before it was acceptable behavior to include African Americans in white bands. I admired him for that integration before I knew the rest of his legacy.
Sunday afternoon was a wonderful, educational and musical experience. It tickled my interest into the legacy of Artie Shaw and satisfied my appreciation of great music played by accomplished Los Angeles based musicians. Jazz Salons are becoming more and more popular in various Southern California communities. For a reasonable donation, you get an afternoon of excellent music, all the wine and beer you can drink, snacks and in this case, historic stories from folks who were there and lived it. For more information about the California Jazz Arts Society, see http://www.caljas.org.
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