JAZZ REVIEW : JOHNSON PLAYS UPBEAT SAX AT GRAND AVENUE

Currently, the best way to beat the Monday-evening traffic crunch in downtown Los Angeles is to wait it out at the Biltmore Hotel's Grand Avenue Bar where tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson holds jazzy court.

Renowned for his 1966 solo on Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther," Johnson is a hard-swinging jazz man whose improvisations are among the most melodious in town. Unfortunately, some of the melodies he chose for his second set Monday evening better served the audience than the player.

Working with the trio of pianist Art Hillery, bassist Ston Gilbert and drummer Charlie Bulla, Johnson kept everything on a very upbeat level, creating a kind of "businessman's bounce" that begged for rhythmic variance. Even "Street of Dreams," a potentially great ballad piece, was rendered with a bright Latin feel whose only saving rhythmic grace was an extraordinary conga solo by guest Buck Clarke.

But the demands of the room aside, Johnson was in fine fettle as he stuck close to the melodies of such tunes as "Our Day Will Come," in which Hillery offered a splendid boppish solo, "On Broadway" and Juan Tizol's "Caravan," replete with a drum solo.

Johnson's best outing came in Lenny Welch's "Since I Fell." The tenor saxophonist's full, warm sound floated gently above the strident rhythm of the trio as he coached new melodies from the tune's changes.

Johnson's Monday-night stint continues indefinitely, as does the weeknight jazz policy of the room. There's no cover nor minimum charge for the shows, which begin at 5 p.m.

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