Not since 1956 has Riccitelli released an authorized,Full-length album.
Not since 1956 has Riccitelli released an authorized,
Full-length album. The documentation of a 94-year young composer/altoist now retired is a lifelong dream of documenting his legacy.
Vinnie Riccitelli could be regarded as one of the best-kept secrets in Jazz. Born in 1926, Riccitelli was raised in Yonkers, New York. He began playing alto saxophone at the age of 11. At the age of 15, Riccitelli started to play professionally, taking a summer job with his brother Joe on accordion, performing in the Catskills in upstate New York. Before such bygone things in America, like labor laws and minors working in venues serving alcohol. Imagine something like that happening today! Riccitelli continued to play club dates throughout his four years of high school.
At the age of 18, during World War II, Riccitelli enlisted in the navy. He was accepted to radio school upon completion of boot camp and was trained as a morse code radio operator. He served on a destroyer for his remaining time in service. Upon completing his service to his country, Riccitelli was accepted by the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in Manhattan, becoming one of the first of three students ever to be accepted as an alto saxophone major at Juilliard School. He studied there for five semesters, under the auspices of the GI bill, while continuing to perform professionally. Upon leaving Juilliard, he became a full-time gigging musician. That career would be the only one he would ever know in his long and storied life.
The year 1956 would be turn out to be a seminal year for him, as he both married the love of his life, his loving wife of 60 years, Jean Krupa, and wrote, arranged, and recorded his first album, entitled Unique Jazz, The Westchester Workshop. That recording – Jazz from the Westchester, Workshop [RKO Unique, Records, 1956] – comprised eight beautifully sculpted original tracks, played by his octet. “Music was what I did for a living. This recording was mainly an experiment, an opportunity for me to ply my compositional and arranging skills while giving me the chance to give something back to the guys I admired, respected, and performed with”, Riccitelli says.
The album itself features world-class musicians, also from Westchester; besides Riccitelli, most notably tenor saxophonist Carmen Leggio, trombonist Eddie Bert, and trumpeter Joe Shepley, all of whom, along with Riccitelli, enjoyed tremendous success and rewarding careers. Riccitelli goes on to say, “I had a lot of fun writing these songs. Some of them capture or profile these guys. For instance, “Carmenooch” was written for Carmen [Leggio], “Bert Flight” was written for Eddie [Bert], and “The Beak, ” which jokingly captured Joe [Shepley’s] rather prominent nose”!
Riccitelli would not endeavor to re-record his own compositions for nearly sixty years but would nevertheless continue to pursue a highly successful freelance career as a local 802 union musician and performer throughout the country. Among his many notable performing career highlights includes four presidential inaugural balls, fifteen years as a member of Bobby Rosengarden’s east coast Jerry Lewis telethon orchestra, and sideman performances with such legendary recording artists such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Barbara Streisand, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Liberace, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Vic Damone, Frankie Laine, Bobby Darrin, Johnny Mathis, Carmen McCrae, Lena Horne, Mel Torme, and countless others.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Riccitelli continued to work with the cream of the entertainment business, including artists like the Jackson Five, Diana Ross, Natalie Cole, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, and dozens more. In addition, Riccitelli would enjoy long time affiliations with some of New York’s premier swinging big bands, including the Dick Meldonian/Sonny Igoe Big Band and Lew Anderson’s wonderful All American Big Band. Riccitelli’s affiliation with Anderson’s Big Band spanned over four decades, beginning in 1973. In 1997, until Anderson died in 2006, the band started and enjoyed a residency every Friday — at the legendary Birdland Jazz Club in midtown Manhattan. The band featured top-caliber New York City musicians, including Glenn Drewes, who appears on this most recent recording. Riccitelli would also appear on multiple recordings with Anderson’s band, as first chair alto.
All in all, Riccitelli’s professional career spanned a remarkable 77 years, from 1941 to 2018. He decided to stop performing publicly and professionally in 2018, although he remains actively engaged with his music at home for enjoyment and recreation. Serendipitously, since retiring from performing on alto sax professionally, Riccitelli rediscovered his love for playing piano and became inspired to revisit some of his unrecorded compositions and arrangements from his earlier career.
For the Record, this latest album released some sixty plus years after the first, features those songs and arrangements, and was recorded between November 2019 and January 2020. This timeline explains his absence from this recording. Riccitelli, of course, was present for all the recording sessions and remained intimately involved with all facets of its production. This most recent project again provided him the chance to work with and reward some of his longtime friends, including a former student of his from the late 1940s, tenor saxophonist Joe Stelluti (Duke Ellington, Harry James, Jimmie Dorsey, Larry Elgardt, Ray Charles), alongside his talented son Chris, on baritone sax, and Joe’s brother Lou on bass, making their contribution to the project a true family affair.
This second album is a veritable feast for the connoisseur of fine, mid-sized jazz ensemble music. Its seventeen-song repertoire features four of Riccitelli original charts, all of which feature the composer’s sophisticated harmonic sensibilities and arranging prowess. The other 13 charts feature imaginatively crafted arrangements of some of his favorite standards, except for “Maids Of Cadiz.” That arrangement was provided by Tommy Newsom, a longtime mainstay of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show Band. Newsom played with Riccitelli’s octet in the early years before moving to California.
Riccitelli’s choices for material, with one or two notable exceptions, judiciously focuses on classics by legendary writers of standards – Jerome Kern, Gene De Paul, Don Raye, Henry Mancini, Vincent Youmans, and Jimmy Van Heusen and others, in addition to some of the great jazz composers, such as Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron, Benny Golson, Duke Jordan, and Herbie Hancock.
The recording begins with Riccitelli’s first original, “Minor Seventh Heaven, ” a chart that pays homage to the beauty of minor seventh chords. The second original, “Blues Dominant, ” written in Mixolydian mode, utilizes 13th chords, not just predominantly but exclusively.
The third original is entitled “Flugelsville, ” an arrangement initially written as an improvisational vehicle for the flugelhorn of the late Joe Shepley from his Westchester Workshop days. This recording’s rendition features the exquisite playing of Glenn Drewes (Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Thad Jones /Mel Lewis Big Band, Dizzy Gillespie), a dear friend of Riccitelli’s and one of New York’s premier musicians for the past forty years. The album’s fourth and final original is entitled “Little Boy Blew, ” an up-tempo bebop blues, which creatively and refreshingly avoids conventional blues changes.
With the remaining tracks on the recording, Riccitelli skillfully provides the band with lush and interesting arrangements of some of his favorite song writer’s compositions, from Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned, ” which features a beautifully melodic solo from tenor man Joe Stelluti (Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, Toots Thielmans). Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now, ” to the rhythmic changes on Leroy Anderson’s “Serenata.” It is with arrangements like these that Riccitelli reveals his masterful use of tonal colors and rich textural palette, particularly his choice of featuring the baritone saxophone, played with enormous grace and gravitas by Joe’s young son, Chris Stelluti (The Temptations), featured on both on “Little Boy Blue” and “Serenata.”
“Star Eyes, ” injects a humorous 5/4 meter into the arrangement, and the tune modulates three times. “Mr Lucky, ” was initially conceived as a feature for Riccitelli’s longtime friend, pianist Johnny Morris. On this recording, the feature goes to the fantastic Eddie Monteiro (Benny Golson, Paquito D’Rivera, Claudio Roditi, Roger Kellaway) on accordion. The arrangement of Leo Delibes’ “Maids of Cadiz” was provided by Tommy Newsom.
Riccitelli’s arrangement on Benny Golson’s “Along Came Betty” features an improvised and harmonized jazz chorus. Leo Ursini (Buddy Rich, Benny Goodman, Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman) was a longtime musical soul-brother of Riccitelli and appears on 11 of the 17 charts. Ursini’s beautiful alto sax sound is featured on the tune, “If You Could See Me Now.” Sadly, Ursini passed away before the recording could be completed, and Riccitelli has justifiably dedicated this album to the memory of his dear friend and fine alto saxophonist.
Ursini’s big shoes were filled on the six remaining tracks by the renowned alto saxophonist Nathan Childers (Buddy Rich, Jimmie and Tommy Dorsey, Aretha Franklin, Deep Purple, Birdland Big Band). Childers shines on the arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance.” The arrangement of “Darn That Dream, ” originally written as a feature for trombonist Eddie Bert, features the fine musical craftsmanship of trombonist Bruce Bonvissuto (Dave Brubeck, J.J. Johnson, John Pizzarelli, Metropolitan Brass Quartet), at his meditative best.
“Flying Down to Rio, ” a song that initially captured Riccitelli’s attention and favor, prompted him to create a chart for it. Thelonius Monk’s tune, “Round Midnight” utilizes half time and double time sections to spice up the arrangement. No jazz group can swing without a fine rhythm section. Kudos all around to the tight rhythm section for this recording.
Drummer Tony Tedesco (John Pizzarelli, Chris Connors, Perry Como, Dick Haymes) provides solidly swinging rhythmic support and a comfortable cushion for the band to play over. Bassist, Lou Stelluti a dear friend of the Riccitelli family, possesses a beautiful melodic sensibility and lends his steady, swinging pulse to the entire recording.
This recording’s brilliance and spirit might make it hard for one to think of Vinnie Riccitelli as a 90+ year-old musician. His ability to write and arrange inventive, swinging charts demonstrates a musician with both a mature and serious talent, combined with an uncommonly fresh youthfulness. Throughout the recording, there is a consistent degree of balance and integration of melody, harmony, and rhythm. The pieces feature not just tightly arranged compositions, but also skillful improvisation, exploration, and the individual voice of each player is given ample chance to be heard. On balance, the entire project stands firmly in the idiom and tradition. These arrangements provide and reward the listener with a glimpse of the freshness and modernity of the period of mid-fifties jazz music. All involved with the project are grateful and proud to be involved with the documentation of this marvelous gift to the jazz community. Riccitelli’s family and friends were delighted to see the joy and passion it provided for its creator.
It all comes together naturally, with passion, authenticity, and a wide range of emotions. For the Record is an album that effectively captures the essence of a significant period in jazz history, and more importantly, the talent, brilliance, and creativity of a great musician, composer, and arranger.
Tracks, run-times and composers:
01: Minor Seventh Heaven 3:31 composed by Vinnie Riccitelli
02: I’m Old Fashioned 3:18 composed by Jerome Kern
03: If You Could See Me Now 3:37 composed by Tad Dameron
04: Serenata 3:46 composed by Leroy Anderson
05: Stompin’ at the Savoy 2:36 composed by Edgar Sampson
06: Star Eyes 4:31 composed by Gene De Paul and Don Raye
07: Mr. Lucky 2:58 composed by Henry Mancini
08: Blues Dominant 4:14 composed by Vinnie Riccitelli
09: Maids of Cadiz 5:16 composed by Leo Delibes
10: Along Came Betty 5:06 composed by Benny Golson
11: Darn the Dream 4:33 composed by Jimmy Van Heusen
12: Dolphin Dance 4:03 composed by Herbie Hancock
13: Flugelsville 3:27 composed by Vinnie Riccitelli
14: Flying Down To Rio 4:36 composed by Vincent Youmans, Gus Kahn and Edward Eliscu
15: Jordu 4:09 composed by Duke Jordan
16: Round Midnight 4:59 Thelonious Monk
17: Little Boy Blew 3:15 composed by Vinnie Riccitelli
Leo Ursini: alto saxophone [tracks 02, 03, 04, 05, 06, 07, 08, 09, 10, 13, 16]
Nathan Childers: alto saxophone [tracks 01, 11, 12, 14, 15, 17]
Joe Stelluti: tenor saxophone
Chris Stelluti: baritone saxophone
Glenn Drewes: trumpet and flugelhorn
Bruce Bonvissuto: trombone
Eddie Monteiro: piano and accordion [track 07]
Lou Stelluti: bass
Tony Tedesco: drums
Artist Name: Vinnie Riccitelli Octet
CD Title: For the Record
Street Date: Coming Spring 2021
Add Date: Coming Spring 2021
Label Name: Self-Released
Available at all fine retailers