I felt myself lucky to be invited to a special corporate party at the
beautiful Westin Harbour Castle on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2002. The people
who booked this corporate gig had originally become acquainted with the
saxy star of the evening's festivities, Johnny Pennino, when one of
their corporate get-togethers took them to New Orleans, home of the
world's best Dixieland Jazz. Jazz greats like Louis Prima and his
long-time sax player, the one and only Sam Butera, who grew up in the
Latin Quarter of New Orleans (then the Italian Quarter - a remark quoted
from a friend of Louis Prima.), were some of the hands-on music idols of
Johnny when he was growing up there himself. Butera laughed when he
first saw Johnny, (now approaching 50), as an eight year old, playing an
alto sax that was almost as big as he was. Ten years later, Sam
wandered into a New Orleans jazz club, pleasantly surprised to see the
'kid' all grown up and wailin' away on sax. This was in a way
reminiscent to Sam, of how he evolved, himself, as a world-renowned sax
player. "Is this little Johnny -- the kid I used to see playin' sax in
the barber shop?" Sam is reported to have uttered.
Decades have passed since those first few brushes with musical
greatness, but Johnny is every bit as down-to-earth as the barber he
played next to as a kid. The difference being now, that Johnny can
definitely give Butera a real run for his money; with his ease as a
seasoned, imaginative and highly talented sax pro. Johnny's renditions
of several well-known tunes of the jazz, Big Band and '50's & '60's pop
music genres, guarantees him a place in the hearts of music lovers
wherever he's played the world over.
Accompanying him as a trio the night I saw him, was his long-time
keyboard player/friend, Richie Ladner. Richie's piano playing rippled
and chorded to perfection all night long. His rough, raw vocals on "When
You're Smilin'" and "Hello Dolly", were reminiscent of Louis
Armstrong's. Pennino's drummer for the event was Toronto Sound's own
Robin Boers, original drummer for the Ugly Ducklings (soon to have a new
Ducks CD out.) Robin told me later that evening about a concert he
played in 1966 in Peterborough, Ont. at a large hall, opening for Wilson
Pickett. After the Ducks had played, and Pickett's band was really
getting into their own Funky thang, Pickett asked the Ducks to sit in
with his band, which they did. Robin, on the second drum kit, was
playing inches away on stage from Pickett's guitarist, Jimi Hendrix;
only a year away from The Summer of Love and guitarist immortality.
Johnny himself has had a few brushes with greatness, such as the time
jazz legend, Duke Ellington came down to hear Johnny perform, intending
to offer him a job in his band if he was up to par. Johnny was more
than up to par -- Ellington offered him the job, but Johnny refused, not
wanting to compromise his own style and musical message to the world,
playing someone else's style; even if it was for the great Ellington
Integrity and belief in his own unique style and ability as a musician,
is what Johnny Pennino delivered to the lucky audience at the Harbour
Castle, the memorable night I was there. Some of the beautiful tunes
played by him and his trio were "The Girl From Ipanema"; a very sweet
"The Shadow of Your Smile"; and a request from me … Hoagy Carmichael's
"The Nearness of You". (Chris Whiteley plays trumpet and sings vocals on
his own beautiful version of "Nearness…" on his very well put together
ballads and blues CD.) The sax solo on Johnny's version, is also a real
winner. Richie sang smooth, mellow vocals on the classic "Somewhere
Over the Rainbow", accompanied by a very emotional sax solo from
Pennino. Johnny's vocals on "Oh Marie" sounded like a cross between
Louis Prima and Tony Bennet.
A right-from-the-heart sax rendition of "Ebb Tide", started the third
and last set, followed by timeless "Time After Time". Another request of
mine, "Misty" was played with all the heart and soul anyone could ask
for. For the encore, a request was made by Johnny's Toronto host, Myles
Tangedal for a repeat of Santana's "Europa", featuring Johnny again in
sax Heaven. This was followed by another request for the final encore;
and as it happens, the late Louis Prima's own famous encore, "When The
Saint's Go Marching In". All the beautiful music that very special
night, was comparable to a good night in a jazz club anywhere in the
world. I'm sure everyone present that night, will be looking forward to
the next time Johnny and Richie bring their musical magic back to
Toronto. Johnny and Richie come from the town where Mardi Gras and New
Orleans jazz got it's name.
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