WHAT A TRIP IT’S BEEN FOR LEGENDARY SAXOPHONIST BILL TRUJILLO, WHO’S PLAYED WITH FRANK, DINO, ELVIS, TONY BENNETT AND PEGGY LEE, AND NOW TAKES CENTER STAGE ON ‘VEGAS,’ A JAZZ-DRIVEN HOMAGE TO HIS LONGTIME HOME SET FOR RELEASE OCTOBER 23
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Produced by Bill’s Son Nick Trujillo, the Dynamic 13-Track Set, is a Family Affair. It is Highlighted by the Trippy-Cool Title Track, Penned by Bill’s Brother Chuck (Who Also Performs Lead Vocals) and Nephew Christopher, and Features Background Vocals by Daughter Michelle Marie
A fixture for several decades in the orchestras at such legendary hotels as the Tropicana, Sands, Stardust, Hilton, Dunes, Frontier, Flamingo and MGM Grand, Los Angeles native Bill Trujillo has made Las Vegas his home for 50 years while backing everyone from Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack pals Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. to Elvis, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee.
Another legend on the veteran saxophonist’s resume of icons is Tony Bennett, who called Bill’s tenor solo during his performance of The Beatles’ “Something” as the best he had ever heard. Even legendary jazzman Stan Getz trekked to The Strip to see Trujillo do his thing.
Now, with the October 23rd release of his traditional jazz driven full length album Vegas, the 82-year-old Trujillo is giving something back, adding a solo and riffs to a trippy, easy grooving title track that is poised to be Sin City’s next theme song.
What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas? Catchy—but not as hip, super cool and “now” as “What a trip it would be,…” the refrain written and spoken-sung, Bennett style, by the saxman’s 85-year-old brother Chuck about crossing the desert and seeing your name up in lights back in the Rat Pack days. The colorful closer to the 13-track set is, like the rest of Vegas, a true family affair, featuring music composed by Trujillo’s nephew Christopher and soulful background vocals of the saxophonist’s daughter Michelle Marie, who sang in Las Vegas in the ’70s and ’80s. Los Angeles jazz and R&B singers Cathy Segal-Garcia and Irene Cathaway also provided background vocals.
The collection was produced and executive produced by Bill’s son Nick Trujillo (www.nicktrujillo.com), who despite growing up in a musical household, successfully pursued a career in academia before entering the independent music world in a unique way several years ago after his wife died of ovarian cancer. A professor of communications at Purdue, Michigan State, Southern Methodist, and Cal State Sacramento for 30 years, Trujillo—inspired by the songwriting and production courses he took at UCLA Extension—has recorded two CDs of quirky songs (Is That Viral Enuf 4 U?, That Is (Still) The Question) under the name Gory Bateson, the mythical nephew of the late British anthropologist Gregory Bateson. With Vegas, Nick adds acid jazz and bebop to his eclectic catalogue.
The album and title track are fashioned as tributes to the swinging vibe of Trujillo’s adopted hometown—a theme that extends to “Our Lady of Vegas” and “Bishop G,” the Catholic schools his kids attended; “The Strip,” the place he worked for so many years, “Howard Hughes Blues,” for the man whom Trujillo thinks “ruined Vegas,” and “Thank You Mr. Bennett,” for none other than the singer who helped the saxman get hired again after his firing by another Vegas legend forced him to support his family by driving a cab for a year in the ’70s.
Vegas is also a heartfelt musical love letter to the musician’s family. The family-inspired song titles include “Lee-Lees,” the nickname for his youngest daughter Lisa; “Michelle Marie” his oldest daughter; “Bossa Nico,” a silky bossa nova named for Nick; “Claudia’s Dance,” for his wife; and “Grammy and Mom,” for his grandmother and mother, who raised him after the untimely death of Bill’s dad when he and Chuck were boys.
That familial spirit extends to the other musicians on the album. Trujillo’s friends are longtime Vegas residents with a combined 200-plus years of performance experience in the city: pianist Ronnie Simone, bassist Dick Jones, drummer Howard Agster, guitarist Tom McDermott and bassist Bob Sachs.
One of the most ironic aspects of Nick Trujillo producing such a powerful recording for Bill is the fact that—while they exchanged pleasantries at holiday gatherings—the two didn’t get along very well for about 40 years.
“The last thing I ever thought I’d do was work on an album with my dad,” says Nick. “We barely talked to each other for a long time. Now music has brought us together.”
Bill had back surgery a few years ago and has been in pain since that time, so he wasn’t sure if he would be able to do another album to complement his older CD’s It’s Tru and It’s Still Tru. But Nick talked him into doing four songs with his musician friends at the home studio of saxophonist Garrett Hypes in July.
“I was excited that he wanted to record again,” Nick adds. “For my dad, the sax is both his therapy and his life. He and his friends just killed it in the studio, and afterwards I asked him, ‘How about if we do a whole album?’”
Bill Trujillo, who launched his career playing in the big bands of legendary figures Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, recalls, “It was so much fun playing and recording again. My preference would be to do an album mixing originals and standards, but Nick wanted me to do all originals, and I ultimately embraced his approach. I’ve written over 200 original tunes and it was an interesting process picking out the ones to record, including a mix of bebop, bossa novas, and one based on Dixieland and bebop (“Dixie in the Desert”). I picked some of them out and Nick picked some, too.”
As Nick listened to those inspiring sessions by all of these Vegas based musical greats, he came up with the concept of making the album a legacy project, paying homage to his father and his connection to the city. Not long before, he had heard the original demo to “Vegas” that his Uncle Chuck and cousin Christopher did, and he loved what he called its “Frank Zappa-esque vibe.” Chuck, a longtime Los Angeles resident, had started writing lyrics in his backyard a few years earlier, and “Vegas” was inspired by his trips there to see his brother and to play craps. Chuck and six of his kids even lived with Bill and his family for several months in the 1960s after his divorce.
Nick produced “Vegas” at Los Angeles’ Moonlight Studios, with L.A. musicians David Vasquez (keyboards) and Jeff Lewis (trumpet), singers Cathy Segal-Garcia and Irene Cathaway, and his uncle and cousin. As he was laying down the tracks, he knew the final piece of the puzzle would be his dad.
Nick laughs, “If you had asked me what was more likely, December 21 being the end of the world with the Mayan calendar, or ‘Vegas’ being the title track of my Dad’s next album, I would have opted for the end of the world. First, how many 84-year-olds record a debut single? Second, the song is so different from my Dad’s trademark bebop style that I didn’t think he’d go for it. But he trusted me to be the producer, that my instincts about this were good, and the song perfectly ties the album together.”
Bill adds, “Nick wanted me to do it, so I said, ‘fine, let’s do it. You’re the producer. If that’s the way you want it, that’s okay with me.’ I was there to play ball.”
Nick says, “I knew my instincts paid off when I was in L.A. at Moonlight Studios and this 20 year old Thai musician who was there to do a Thai pop project asked to hear ‘Vegas.’ He started bobbing his head, then bobbing and weaving with his body and said he loved it. So while it can appeal to lovers of classic ‘Vegas,’ the younger generation can latch onto the coolness and the beats.”
For fans of many generations, the Vegas album will introduce the powerful composing style and musicianship of a saxophonist whose career spans over half a century of American music and, in recent years, has included a busy schedule as a music instructor. Bill Trujillo’s love for music started very early on as a child growing up in Los Angeles, where he learned to read music before he could read words. Starting clarinet lessons at the age of 4, Trujillo switched to tenor saxophone after seeing Lester Young perform with Count Basie. His mother, a dance teacher at the famous Palomar Ball Room in LA, regularly took him and his older brother Chuck to hear big bands there and at the Paramount and other popular show places.
Trujillo started his professional career at age 16 in the West Coast-based Glenn Henry Band. During the 1940s, Trujillo played with Alvino Rey and other West Coast groups, and in 1953 joined Woody Herman for a year. He later joined the Chicago based Bill Russo Quintet, then returned to L.A., where he played in the orchestras of Charlie Barnet, Jerry Gray, and Lalo Guererro and gigged with small groups. He joined Stan Kenton’s band in 1958, but the year-long road trips quickly took their toll on Trujillo’s young family—which prompted him to seek opportunities that allowed him to play regularly in the same city.
“I told Stan I couldn’t go out again, and he totally understood,” says Trujillo. “I played some low brow gigs in the San Fernando Valley for a short time, then heard from a friend of mine in Las Vegas who said he could get me a good paying fill-in gig there. It was Holiday In Japan at the New Frontier. The bandleader liked the way I played and offered me a permanent position. Claudia and I moved the family to Vegas and we’ve been there ever since!”
What a trip it has been.