Jazz is a world that's rich with connections and history that's nurtured on the bandstand. Pianist and bandleader Larry Vuckovich knows, loves and is part of this history.
The 82-year-old Calistoga resident has performed with the likes of saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Dexter Gordon, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Philly Joe Jones. His reputation among vocalists whom he's accompanied — Tony Bennett, Anita O'Day, Bobby McFerrin, Mary Stallings, Joe Williams and others — is sterling.
Vuckovich's family emigrated from communist Yugoslavia to San Francisco as refugees in 1951. The recorded and live jazz he was able to hear stateside fully captured his imagination.
"What an exciting thing for a 14-year-old," he said. "At first I listened to big bands — Basie, Ellington, Dizzy's bebop band, Woody Herman. And then I'm going to clubs," he continued. "I'm standing in front of Harry James with Buddy Rich. I heard the original MJQ (Modern Jazz Quartet) with Kenny Clarke. Oscar Peterson. I also heard Miles (Davis) and Trane (John Coltrane) with (their) first band."
One of Vuckovich's brands has been themed projects, whether it's the music of tenor saxophonist Lester Young, Miles Davis' seminal "Kind of Blue" album (which just celebrated its 60th anniversary) or the mighty history of Blue Note Records. "I'm keeping the jazz legacy going to pay back the masters we learned from," he said.
On the afternoon of Sunday, March 10, he'll present a curated program at Wunderman House, the colorful former speakeasy and bordello in Mountain View. The concert will feature vocalist Jackie Ryan and double bassist Jeff Chambers. Vuckovich recently spoke about the program and his storied career to the Weekly.
Q: You've played in nearly every venue in the Bay Area over the years. How has it been doing concerts at the Wunderman House recently?
A: The response has been really good. It's got nice acoustics, and people really like the atmosphere. And there are some beautiful ladies on the wall — the pictures on the wall, you know? (Chuckles.)
The first concert I did there was solo piano. I'd tell stories and do different composers and people really liked it. And then I said, "Let me start with some small groups." So we had a trio with piano, bass and guitar. The modern trio is piano, bass and drums. But the original trio is piano, guitar and bass — the Nat King Cole style. And now we have Sunday's concert with Jackie.
Q: And what's your approach to playing with a vocalist?
A: In the '50s, I started going to the Black Hawk (nightclub in San Francisco) when I was in high school. I met (pianist) Vince Guaraldi, who was playing with (vibraphonist) Cal Tjader. Eventually, I became Vince's only student. He turned everybody away. Somehow he liked me, my playing, whatever. I would go to his house and we would listen to records. What he taught me was that basically to accompany singers, the idea is not to noodle, not to be too busy, not to get in the way but to lay a nice comfortable harmonic platform. It's like a string section.
Q: Was that initially easier said than done?
A: One of my first gigs was with Irene Kral, and I obviously didn't have any experience with singers back then. She tells me, "You learn fast. You know that the idea is not to get in the way." When I played with Mel (Tormé) the first time, it was in San Francisco in '63. On Kearney Street, there was a supper club called Off Broadway. It took me a while to learn the music, because I'm not a great reader. I can read, but I'm just not that fast. But once I learned the music, it was fine. Mel comes back to town, this time to San José, and calls me to work with him again. In those days you had jazz everywhere! There was a very comfortable place called Safari Room that featured vocalists like him. On the break he's sitting down with (Monterey Jazz Festival founder) Jimmy Lyons. And he said, "Jimmy, I had a lot of big name accompanists. But this guy, Vuckovich, is like radar. So for the next Monterey Festival, I want him and (drummer) Mel Lewis to play with me."
Q: So when accompanying instrumentalists, it's more about prodding the soloist as opposed to hanging back for a vocalist?
A: Yeah, you lay back. At the same time on the swing tunes (with a vocalist) you do have to offer some ... punching so it moves the rhythm section.
Q: How would you describe Jackie's musical concept?
A: She's one of the most versatile musicians I know. She does traditional swinging stuff like Billie Holiday. She does some great Brazilian music with phenomenal pronunciation. Jackie also sings in Italian, like "Estate," the Italian tune that became a bossa nova standard. She can do vocalese, and she can do authentic blues.
Q: Jackie's wide range in styles mirrors yours nicely.
A: It's like, why do I want to be limited eating hamburgers every day? Why can't I have Indian food, too? Or Mexican? So that's what the music is about, you know?
What: Larry Vuckovich Trio with Jeff Chambers and Jackie Ryan.
Where: Wunderman House, 655 Eunice Ave., Mountain View.
When: Sunday, March 10, at 3 p.m.
Cost: $25 suggested donation.
Info: Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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