Jazzed to be coming home

By Graham Reid

Grammy-winning Kiwi jazz man Alan Broadbent is making a rare visit home to play and pick up yet another honour. He talks to Graham Reid

Despite nursing "some weird European flu" he picked up while touring recently, Alan Broadbent sounds in good spirits as he sits in his home in Los Angeles. But he is a rare and endangered species.

As an acclaimed and award-winning jazz pianist, composer and orchestral arranger, the Auckland-raised Broadbent - who has lived in Los Angeles for over four decades - is in the lineage of legendary arrangers such as Nelson Riddle (who worked with Frank Sinatra), Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones.

But as he notes with a wry laugh, "I swear to God, this is the only profession I know where you can be internationally famous - and broke. There's not much call now for orchestras with singers."

So Broadbent has regular jazz gigs around LA, notably at an Italian restaurant Spazio in the Valley ("pouring my heart out while someone is slurping noodles") and recently accompanying standards singer Michael Feinstein.

In recent years he has arranged for and toured with Natalie Cole and Diana Krall, conducted the touring orchestra for Elvis Costello's ballet suite Il Sogno, and is a member of Charlie Haden's Quartet West jazz group. So when he says, "I never know from one week to the next [how we'll survive]," there is also a necessary coda: "But that's the way I have always wanted it, and my family bear with me."

And let us put this in context: Spazio is the most renowned jazz restaurant in LA; Feinstein among the best interpreters of the Great American Songbook; Quartet West one of the finest and most in-demand jazz outfits working today; and when it comes to arranging and playing jazz Broadbent is good. Very good.

He has had seven Grammy nominations since 1975 when his name came up for his work with Woody Herman. Other nominations came for arranging and conducting with Mel Torme, Scott Hamilton, Marian McPartland, Sheila Jordan and Natalie Cole. In 1997 he won with an arrangement for Cole, three years later he picked up another with an arrangement for Quartet West featuring vocalist Shirley Horn.

The nominations kept coming (Cole again, for his trio albums), Jazz Times recently called him "one of the major keyboard figures of the day" and when he comes back to New Zealand in a fortnight he will be made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to jazz.

Broadbent is a major player on the international stage - yet he could hardly be more modest, quietly-spoken and self-effacing. When asked about what kind of set he might play at SkyCity with old friend Frank Gibson (drums) and 19-year-old bassist Tom Dennison ("a young guy Frank has discovered, who has the spirit") he says "a few standards, some of my compositions, something by Charlie Parker and Body and Soul, I always have to do Body and Soul".

"Basically the same shit we were doing at the Embers," he laughs, a reference to the Auckland club where he played after leaving Marcellin College at 15.

Shortly after that his life moved rapidly: a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston; playing in a trio there; learning by watching Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans and other jazz giants; lessons with the great Lennie Tristano in New York; on the road playing lousy dance gigs with the Woody Herman band when it was in decline; writing more contemporary arrangements for them; the Grammy nomination for Children of Lima in '75; the move to Los Angeles; and then a roll call of genius he has worked with: Percy Faith, Johnny Mandel, Henry Mancini and Nelson Riddle who he was with for 10 years.

"You know, when I was about 14 or 15 I discovered that Sinatra album In The Wee Small Hours [which Riddle arranged] at the Onehunga Library, then later I'm sitting on my couch in Los Angeles in the early 70s and I get a call to go down and play a Saturday night gig with some big band. I'm there looking at all those old guys, and out comes Nelson.

"That was my first gig with Nelson. It's funny how things come around in life, isn't it?"

When Broadbent speaks of his career he rarely refers to himself but deflects attention and praise towards others. He works with Krall when she is touring and through her met her husband Elvis Costello. That lead to the Il Sogno dates.

"It is a fascinating piece and beautifully written. Some of the songs are so gorgeous, there's one called And the Birds Will Still Be Singing that can make your knees wobble."

When conversation turns to Quartet West he again shifts attention away from his invaluable contribution to that group's material and arrangements.

"I write for the quartet when I'm inspired by Charlie's vision of the Raymond Chandler era and the LA of the 50s - which is ancient history for us, like Notre Dame! Charlie is 70 years old and just come back from a concert at Carnegie Hall with his triplet daughters, son Josh and half of the Nashville studio players.

"His father was from Springfield, Missouri and had a radio programme in the 40s and Charlie sang on it when he was 2 years old. He was in the Haden Family who were famous in country music.

"So he brought these country people together and he's very excited about it, but also worried because he doesn't know what the jazz contingent will make of it. I had nothing to do with it.

"I told him there was only so far I could go with four chords," he laughs. "I'd need to change key or something."

When Broadbent returns to Auckland - he was here in 2003 conducting and performing with the NZSO - he will bring his wife and young son and head back to a place which has always given him inspiration, Piha.

"I grew up there in summer and I'm still getting doctor's bills to prove it."

And despite more than 40 years in the States he is still regularly described as a "New Zealand pianist".

"I think it says something about how international the music has become. When I left I was entering the void, another world.

"But now it's the same no matter where we go."

LOWDOWN
Who: Grammy winning jazz composer, arranger and pianist Alan Broadbent.
What: In concert with drummer Frank Gibson and bassist Tom Dennison.
Where: SkyCity Theatre, September 28.
Trivia: Broadbent got his big break while working as an apprentice signwriter. He was 16 and playing in Auckland jazz clubs when he sent a tape to Downbeat magazine in the United States and won a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston. He never did signwriting again.

- NZ Herald

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