Rudy Salvini was one of the leading figures in the Bay Area jazz scene until his death this past June 7. He started the Rudy Salvini Big Band in 1954 at a time when most jazz lovers had felt that big bands had gone out of style, but the group made enough of an impression to be invited to play at the inaugural Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958. Yet for all the time taken by his prodigious schedule as a performer, he also had time to teach music at the K-8 level in the Pacifica School District until his retirement in 1985.
One of his last projects involved the formation of the Rudy Salvini Jazz Octet. This amounted to a “chamber music distillation” of big band sounds and practices involving only eight performers. Back when the calendar was being prepared for the third quarter in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church, this Octet was scheduled to perform yesterday afternoon. Salvini’s death was clearly not expected, but the eight musicians decided that the show would go on as a tribute concert for the group’s founder.
Salvini’s approach to “distillation” involved one instrument for each of the saxophone ranges, alto (Wayne Collier, filling in for Scott Petersen), tenor (Tom Hart), and baritone (Ted Thiele), two brass players (Larry Souza alternating between trumpet and flugelhorn and Van Hughs on trombone), and a “standard” rhythm section of piano (John Price), bass (Dean Reilly), and drums (Tom Duckworth). The result was ideal for the intimate acoustics of Old First (not to mention the limited space on the altar). Yet, even with these modest resources, there was no mistaking the sonorities of a style that continues to draw followers, no matter how many try to dismiss it as outmoded.
The “secret of success” probably has much to do with the quality of arrangements prepared for the group. Many of those arrangements came from Hart, who also served as informal leader of the group. Others came from leading arrangers of the big band era, such as Bob Florence. Two Duke Ellington arrangements were provided by Mike Greensill, who appears regularly at Old First with his wife Wesla Whitfield.
Equally important is that the repertoire was not restricted to the hits of the old big band era. Yesterday’s program offered a fair share of the bossa nova style, including Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive” (which was his loose adaptation of the E minor piano prelude, Opus 28, Number 4, by Frédéric Chopin). Even some of the modernist rebellion against big band tradition fared well in the arrangements for this Octet. Both Thelonious Monk (“Nutty”) and Dexter Gordon (“Fried Bananas”) were represented, as well as Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” (although Nelson had a similar interest in the “chamber music big band” approach on his The Blues and The Abstract Truth (whose tracks are scored for a septet). The overall result was an engaging jazz listening experience of the finest quality.