Alan Broadbent has long been a major force behind the scenes in jazz, whether it was accompanying Irene Kral on some of the most exquisite vocal albums ever recorded, contributing arrangements to Natalie Cole or playing piano with Charlie Haden’s Quartet West. ‘Round Midnight, a trio set with bassist Brian Bromberg and drummer Joe LaBarbera, puts the focus on Broadbent’s skills as a pianist and improviser, and the result is one of his finest recordings to date.
“On my trio recordings,” says the pianist, “I meet up with my musicians and basically ask them what they would like to play. For ‘Round Midnight, I wanted to record a couple of my originals and there was a short list of tunes that I was hoping to improvise on, but that is always open to change. We had a completely improvised experience and I did not have any preconceptions. I don’t like overly planned “big band trios,” preferring to concentrate on interplay and listening to each other. I’ve known Joe LaBarbera since our Woody Herman days, before he joined Bill Evans. His impeccable taste, ability to always swing and quick reactions are well known. Brian Bromberg I met on a Lee Ritenour jazz date in the 1990s. He’s a great virtuoso and always a pleasure to play with.”
Although ‘Round Midnight is a very spontaneous set, the playing is always quite coherent and logical due to the big ears and quick reactions of the three musicians. The program begins with Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High,” “Serenata” and J.J. Johnson’s “Lament.” Broadbent’s personal chord voicings, flawless octave playing and superior accompaniment skills (heard behind Bromberg’s occasional solos) are very much in evidence. His harmonically rich and lyrical original “Die Vereinbarung” is dedicated to the music of Vienna and has a wistful melody. He also wrote “Journey Home” about his early days playing in New Zealand. Its relaxed theme is catchy and “Journey Home” has a particularly attractive set of chord changes for the musicians to play over. “I’m Old Fashioned” is given a particularly inventive interpretation while always keeping the melody in mind. Asked to pick a personal favorite performance on the set, Broadbent named “‘Round Midnight” (which builds logically from the opening theme) although the cooking version of “The Man I Love” that concludes the set is also quite worthy. “I have favorite moments throughout the disc where there is a phrase I particularly like. Overall, this is a good example of how we play together and is one of my favorite personal recordings.”
Born in Auckland, New Zealand, Alan Broadbent remembers two key moments in his early musical development. “When I was seven or eight, I looked forward to Sunday morning when the program Sparky and his Magic Piano was on. The basic story is that Sparky, who does not practice, had a piano that came to life. He goes on a concert tour with his magic piano that plays whatever he wants. I remember hearing him perform Chopin’s ‘Etude #4 in C Sharp Minor,’ a very fast technical piece that is compact and intense. I felt the power of the music and it led to me studying classical piano. As a teenager, I went through my Dad’s sheet music and learned some popular songs. I had an opportunity to see the Dave Brubeck Quartet in New Zealand. I’ll always remember Paul Desmond with Brubeck starting off the concert playing ‘Tangerine,’ a song that I knew, at least the sheet music version. The way they played it was so powerful and so inventive that it was another great moment for me and helped lead me to playing jazz.”
While still living in New Zealand as a teenager, Broadbent became a jazz musician although sometimes learning the hard way. “At the time it was the tail-end of a strong jazz period in New Zealand. Mike Nock and his trio used to pummel me into becoming a better jazz player. My time was a bit corny and they showed me more about swinging, getting me to listen to Wynton Kelly records.” When he was 19 in 1966, Broadbent took a 32-day voyage on a ship to the United States to study at The Berklee College of Music. While attending Berklee, he worked regularly in a local Boston club and took private lessons from Lennie Tristano in New York. “Lennie was a bit hesitant with me at first, until he realized that I knew his music and really wanted to work hard. He had me singing Lester Young solos for two years and working on his exercises. We became good friends and I learned a lot about life from him.”
Broadbent gained his initial recognition in the jazz world for his piano playing and arrangements during a three-year period with the Woody Herman Orchestra (1969-72). “I loved being a part of his band although everything I learned at Berklee went down the drain because it didn’t work with Woody’s band! At the time, Blood, Sweat and Tears was a huge hit, playing jazz movements inside a rock and roll framework and it seemed like it would be very adaptable to Woody’s band. We were playing country clubs and Army bases and the book was not that good so Tony Klatka, Bill Stapleton and I decided that, since there was a prom coming up, we should do some of these more modern songs for Woody. We wrote all of these new arrangements and the kids loved it because they knew the tunes, so Woody started having me write for him, suggesting that I write “Blues In The Night.” During his Herman years, Broadbent was nominated for Grammy Awards for his work on Children of Lima and Aja.
By 1972 Broadbent had tired of living on the band bus, so he gave his notice and moved to Los Angeles. After a period of struggle, he had a major break. “One afternoon in 1974 I got a call to come down to the Beverly Hilton that night for a big band dance gig. When I went down to the hotel, out walked Nelson Riddle and I realized I was with his band from the Frank Sinatra days! It included Shorty Sherock, Harry Klee, Wilbur Schwartz and Milt Bernhart, all those great guys. Nelson liked my playing and said that if I could read that well, I should be doing some of his television work. That was my entrance into the studio scene.” He worked as Riddle’s pianist for 10 years and was on many sessions headed by David Rose, Johnny Mandel and Henry Mancini.
Since that time, Alan Broadbent has performed and recorded in a countless number of settings. In addition to his studio work, he is prized by vocalists for his skills as an accompanist, working with, among others, Sheila Jordan, Sue Raney, Rosemary Clooney, Mel Torme, Karrin Allyson, Mary Stallings, Judy Niemack and Carol Sloane. However he is most famous for recording three timeless ballad albums with Irene Kral: Where Is Love, Kral Space and Gentle Rain. “I’m not aware of lyrics when I’m playing, I never have been. Instead, I’m listening to how the singer phrases, like I would a horn player. I look back on those albums with Irene, which is very sensitive music, as some of my most valuable work. If nothing else, those records are something I can leave behind. It shows that in the best music it’s not about what you play or sing, but what you have to say and feel that is most important.”
Through the years, Alan Broadbent has performed with the who’s who of West Coast jazz including Chet Baker, Warne Marsh, Scott Hamilton, Bud Shank, Shelly Manne, Bill Berry, Bill Perkins, Gary Foster, Bob Brookmeyer, Jack Sheldon, Don Menza and Pete Christlieb. He has been a member of Charlie Haden’s Quartet West since the mid-1980s.
“My first trio album which was made in New Zealand had been played on the radio in L.A. and Charlie heard it while he was driving. He went home, called the station and found out it was me. He was looking to have a group of local players who he could take on the road. It’s always such a fun group. Ernie Watts played soprano in my saxophone quartet for my recital at Berklee so he was an old friend, while Charlie had known Larance Marable since he was 15. I visited Europe for the first time with Quartet West and I consider Charlie Haden to be the finest bassist I’ve ever played with. Recently I have been playing with Charlie’s Liberation Music Orchestra, another fun experience.”
As a leader of trios, Broadbent led dates in the past for such labels as Revelation, Discovery, Trend and Concord, including Better Days, Pacific Standard Time and Personal Standards. He also recorded a solo piano CD for Concord (Live at Maybeck Hall, Vol.14) as well as a duo CD with saxophonist Gary Foster, Live At Maybeck.
In addition to all of that work, Alan Broadbent has been active as an arranger and a conductor. “I received a call one day to go to a studio and there was Ray Brown and Jeff Hamilton. They wanted me to play ‘Straighten Up And Fly Right,’ so we did a take. To my surprise, out came Natalie Cole and, before I knew it, I was out on the road as part of her Unforgettable tour. I had an opportunity to write for her and we did three albums together (Take A Look, Holly and Ivy and Stardust),
Since then I’ve been writing for orchestras, most recently for a Steve Tyrell Sinatra project. I also worked on a jazz album with Linda Ronstadt and ended up conducting her concerts that used Nelson Riddle orchestrations which are supremely beautiful.” Broadbent has also collaborated with Diana Krall, working as her musical director. “I have known her since she was 19. She studied with me and I pulled out my Tristano stuff, having her sing Lester Young solos! I also will be conducting Elvis Costello’s ballet in Australia.” Alan also arranged and conducted Mel Torme’s Tribute to Bing Crosby(which gained a Grammy nomination for best arrangement accompanying a vocal, Scott Hamilton’s With Strings and Marian McPartland’s Silent Pool.
With all of that activity, a trio showcase such as ‘Round Midnight was long overdue, to remind listeners of Broadbent’s talents as an improvising jazz pianist. “I love the way that Joe and Brian play for me. It is an afternoon of my feelings, a snapshot of our meeting together.”
For the future, Alan Broadbent says, “I practice every day. As Lennie told me, I can’t go too far from the piano. My goal is always to move people. As long as I concentrate on what moves me, then I have a chance to affect people who feel deeply about this music.”