Bob Florence Limited Edition: a big-band blast

    The brilliant attack of Florence's modern-era big band, combined with subtle dynamics worthy of Basie, could pin you to the chair

    Clockwise from top - Bob Florence Limited Edition; Bob Florence at Pizza On The Park, London, December 1993, photo © Brian O'Connor; Bob Florence publicity shot c. 1980s

    Between 1979 and 2006 Bob Florence recorded 13 big-band albums with his Limited Edition and each release was an event. One of the band’s notable features was a six-man saxophone section which was packed with doublers. No less than 18 woodwinds were available to the leader who took full advantage of the stimulating tone colours available to him. The band could pin you to the chair with the brilliance of its attack combined with subtle dynamics worthy of the Basie band at its very best. As drummer Nick Ceroli once said, “It can blow your head off or whisper in your ear.”

    Florence wrote many compelling originals and each album, which presented totally fresh material, was replete with a selection of his innovative themes. He was nominated for 15 Grammy awards over the years, finally breaking through in 2000 when his Serendipity 18 won Best Performance by a Jazz Ensemble.

    Florence was born in Los Angeles in 1932 and began piano lessons when he was three. He had perfect pitch together with a prodigious talent for the instrument, performing his first piano recital at the age of seven. After leaving high school he took an arranging course at the LA City College where he organised a band which rehearsed at the local Musicians Union. Lanny Morgan, Bob Hardaway (who both became Limited Edition members) Herb Geller and Jack Sheldon were all students at the college at that time.

    Florence soon became “mesmerised” by the sounds of the Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Woody Herman bands. He worked for Alvino Rey, Les Brown, Louie Bellson and Harry James in the late 50s. Around 1961 his career really took off when he arranged Up A Lazy River for Si Zentner. It became a big hit and won a Grammy. This led to commissions from Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich and Count Basie as well as entries into the commercial world with Andy Williams, Dean Martin, Red Skelton and Frank Sinatra on their TV shows.

    He was not completely lost to jazz at this time because his 1964 big band recording of Straight, No Chaser prompted this comment from Thelonious Monk in a Downbeat blindfold test: “It sounded so good, it made me like the song better! It was top-notch.” He particularly liked the trombone solo from Herbie Harper, who later became a founder member of the Limited Edition. Florence went on to work with Jack Jones, Julie Andrews and Lena Horne and for most of the 70s he toured with Vikki Carr as her musical director.

    1979 was the year he introduced his Limited Edition, with its stellar line-up of big-band veterans who had left the rigours of the road for the security of the Los Angeles studios. They had all paid their dues over the years touring with Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Louis Bellson, Charlie Barnet, Les Brown and Benny Goodman. Interpreting his demanding scores was clearly not a problem and it helped that the band was full of heavy-hitter soloists. There follows a review of selected highlights from the band’s extensive discography.

    Their debut recording took place at Concerts By The Sea, which was Howard Rumsey’s club on the pier at Redondo Beach. They were recorded there over four nights in June 1979. The band is really put through their paces on the extended Be Bop Charlie that is almost through-composed in its construction. It is dedicated to Chuck Niles who is the only jazz DJ with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Bob Hardaway (tenor) and Charlie Loper (trombone) both stretch out to good effect. Nick Ceroli, who is better known for his commercial work with Herb Alpert, proves here and on all his recordings with the band to be a fine big-band drummer very much in the Buddy Rich tradition. The Lonely Carousel is a perfect vehicle for the lyrical flugelhorn of Warren Luening. Sounding very close to the great Guido Basso of Rob McConnell fame he is cushioned here by delicate writing for the woodwinds. Charlie Loper, with a little hint of Mad About The Boy along the way, thrives in the laid-back swing created by the band on Wide Open Spaces.

    Westlake, the band’s next release, was recorded nine months later. The title track finds the leader’s piano accompanied by subdued ensemble textures in a successful exercise in subtle dynamics. One, Two, Three is a suite of waltzes opening with an exciting uptempo feature for Pete Christlieb (tenor) revealing his Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis roots. The tempo slows for an elegant flugelhorn statement from Steve Huffsteter before the ensemble segues into a delightful baritone-led saxophone soli. The suite concludes with a storming soprano outing from Ray Pizzi who takes things out with another stimulating section soli. These tempo changes are handled with aplomb by Ceroli, whether on sticks or brushes. Christlieb displays another side of his musicality with an emotional reading on Autumn. He really should be far better known. Despite the 26 albums recorded under his own name, he still seems to fly under the radar. He was interviewed for JJ by Randy L. Smith in 2019.

    The well-named Magic Time was recorded in 1983. Florence intriguingly scored the title track for six clarinets, one of which is Bob Efford’s bass clarinet. Definitely not a sound you hear every day but very effective. Dick Mitchell has an impressive flute outing before a saxophone soli becomes a springboard for Charlie Loper’s trombone. He has a reputation for being a great lead player who can play great jazz and he demonstrates that here. The chart climaxes with a thrilling shout chorus that became something of a Limited Edition speciality over the years. Double Barrel Blues is introduced by two choruses of funky chords from the leader’s electric piano. It is one of his cutest themes and London-born Bob Efford shows just why he was so highly thought of by his colleagues. The rich sonorities of his baritone both here and on Bleuphoria are almost Carney-like in intensity. Rhythm And Blues is an absolute tour-de-force led by Lanny Morgan on alto. Through a blizzard of key changes it storms along at 90 bpm which should be impossible but Morgan manages to be inventive throughout. Bill Perkins once summed him up for me as “the greatest, most dynamic jazz-oriented lead alto I ever played with”.

    Their 1986 album Trash Can City was dedicated to Nick Ceroli, who had died the previous year aged only 45. He was on all the previous Limited Edition albums and is replaced here by Peter Donald, who had played extensively with the Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin Big band. Bob called him “a revelation”. The CD opens with Willowcrest, an original he wrote for the Buddy Rich band in 1967; it was to remain in the drummer’s book for years. There is an ethereal quality to Jewels, which has Julie Andrews humming wordlessly much like Adelaide Hall did on Creole Love Call with Duke Ellington back in 1927. The Bebop Treasure Chest is a collection of brief references to Night In Tunisia, The Champ, Salt Peanuts, Bebop, Hot House and Doodlin’, among others. The Babbling Brook is dedicated to Bob Brookmeyer, who was one of Florence’s heroes. It is book-ended by the leader’s use of a Yamaha DX7, which gets pretty close to Brookmeyer’s trombone sound electronically. The track benefits from a fine chorus from the West Coast’s great Lestorian, Bob Cooper.

    In 1993 the band recorded its second live date, titled Funupsmanship – this time at the Moonlight Tango Café in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles. It introduces drummer Steve Houghton, who was making his first album with Florence. The easy-paced Slimehouse is actually based on Limehouse Blues and introduces the ensemble without solos to an enthusiastic audience. Funupsmanship is a contrapuntal original worthy of Bill Holman (an acknowledged influence) with a fine trombone contribution from Alex Iles quoting I’m Getting Sentimental Over You and Laura along the way. The Cat’s Waltzes features a soulful Bob Efford and a particularly melodic Warren Luening. Once again the ghost of Bill Holman hovers over the dynamic arrangement of Come Rain Or Come Shine which is a feature for the elegant playing of Charlie Loper. On Lester Leaps In, Rick Culver (trombone) and Lanny Morgan find something totally fresh and original to play on Gershwin’s familiar harmony. Tenorman Dick Mitchell positively bristles with authority and invention on Wayne Shorter’s uptempo Lester Left Town. The album concludes with a 12-minute exploration of Miles Davis’ All Blues that is noticeable for the distinctive harmonies Bob Florence created for the brass section. Warren Luening, who is very Miles-like in a harmon, takes the solo honours. 

    The 2002 release Whatever Bubbles Up opens with Dukeisms which Bob wrote to celebrate the anniversary of Duke Ellington’s birth with suitable hints of Cottontail, Happy Go Lucky Local and I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart. The pure sound of Carl Saunders is featured on Nerve Endings, recalling one of the unsung heroes of the trumpet, Don Fagerquist. Chelsea Bridge is a delight, with Charlie Loper carrying the melody over attractive woodwind scoring before his section-mate Bob McChesney takes off for an inventive jazz chorus. Steve Huffsteter in a harmon plots a lyrical course through Q & A, which he has all to himself.

    The 2006 Eternal Licks & Grooves opens and closes with respectful homages to Count Basie and Stan Kenton. The exciting Eternal Licks & Grooves (the title says it all) has the trombones introducing variations on One O’Clock Jump over repeated pedal tones from the piano and the baritone. Tom Peterson’s beefy tenor and Larry Lunetta’s expressive trumpet are featured over backgrounds that hint at Jumpin’ At The Woodside before the ensemble closes with one of the best-known codas in jazz, patented by the Count himself.

    The strangely titled Appearing In Cleveland is explained in the sleeve-note. Stan Kenton was once asked in a radio interview where he thought jazz was going. He modestly replied “We’re appearing in Cleveland on the 30th!” Drummer Peter Erskine, who was with Kenton in the early 70s, opens what is almost a mini-suite with an explosive burst on the cymbals leading to Artistry In Rhythm from the leader. A paraphrase of Eager Beaver introduces Bob Efford before Intermission Riff heralds a tempo change and a brief quote from Willis, which Florence introduced on the 1996 Earth CD. Guitarist Larry Koonse, whose father played with Harry James and George Shearing, steps up to the solo mike before the band reprises the Artistry theme which closed so many Kenton concerts over the years.

    It really is remarkable how consistent the Limited Edition personnel remained over the years. In a 1992 LA Times interview Florence saluted three of his regular sidemen – Steve Huffsteter, Bob Efford and Lanny Morgan – saying “These guys are a real joy to work with.” Huffsteter appeared on all 13 albums, Efford was on 10 and Morgan was on six. In Lanny’s case it probably would have been far more if he had not spent most of the 1990s touring first class with Natalie Cole’s backing group.

    Bob Florence Limited Edition discography
    Live At Concerts By The Sea (1979) Discovery 74005CD
    Westlake (1981) Discovery DSCD 832CD
    Soaring (1982) Sea Breeze SB2082CD
    Magic Time (1983) Trend TRCD 536
    Trash Can City (1986) Trend TRCD545
    State Of The Art (1988) USA Music Group USACD589
    Serendipity 18 (1988) Mama Foundation MMF 1025CD
    Treasure Chest (1990) USA Music Group USACD 680
    Funupsmanship (1993) Mama Foundation MMF1006CD
    With All The Bells & Whistles (1995) Mama Foundation MMF 1011CD
    Earth (1996) Mama Foundation MMF 1016CD
    Whatever Bubbles Up (2002) Summit DCD360CD
    Eternal Licks & Grooves (2006) Mama Foundation MMF 1030CD

    Bob Florence died in May 2008. Five months later The Limited Edition recorded a tribute album with Alan Broadbent in the piano chair, titled Legendary (MAA 1037).