Riding the Sound Waves at Otter Crest

"You simply have to go to the Otter Crest party. The music is different, and the setting is idyllic."

When one has heard endorsements along these lines from jazzman after jazzman, it eventually becomes embarrassing not to act on their recommendation. As it turned out, the Otter Crest Jazz Weekend was everything that had been promised.

The Inn at Otter Crest, a resort hotel six miles north of Newport and 50 miles northwest of Eugene, is a rambling collection of timbered buildings clinging to the hilly shoreline, surrounded on three sides by hundreds of pine and fir trees, on the fourth by the Pacific Ocean. The beauty and serenity of the setting established a mood that clearly inspired the musicians at the festival, held last weekend.

The various jazz parties that have proliferated since the 1960s tend to become an almost closed shop, with most of the same performers playing musical chairs at Denver, Santa Fe, San Diego, Scottsdale and the rest. Some of them are here too, but counterbalancing this is a healthy contingent of unfamiliar faces, among them six Canadians and a Japanese, along with several artists from the Oregon and Washington State areas who confound the illusion that the term "West Coast Jazz" is limited to California.

"We like to mix it up a little," said Jim Brown, the 62-year-old real estate dealer who with his wife Mary launched the party in 1978. "The first year we had only 12 players and 60 customers; now we have 30 musicians, and we keep a ceiling of 300 patrons to maintain some intimacy. We're sold out every year."

Bill Berry, the Los Angeles cornetist who has been Brown's musical director for the past decade, gives the hired hands total freedom to play with whomever they choose. Certain sets are special: all five bass players playing a special arrangement, or all five tenor sax stars in a collective jam. Saturday evening all six Canadians worked as a unit: the velvet-toned Fraser McPherson on tenor sax, Rob McConnell on valve trombone, the amazing pianist Oliver Jones, guitarist Ed Bickert, Terry Clarke on drums, and Don Thompson on bass.

Thompson may well be the most versatile major talent in jazz today. Still based in Canada, he has toured extensively (five years with George Shearing), but the full range of his gifts is hard to absorb. During a single hour he started with three impeccable numbers on vibes, switched to piano for a duo piece with Bickert, played some of the most phenomenal bass solos ever heard, then showed his talent as a drummer before returning to vibes to close out the set.

Who in the U.S. has heard of Oliver Jones? He has been in this country briefly a few times, but is better known all over Europe and, of course, in Canada. Like Oscar Peterson, he studied with Peterson's sister, Daisy Sweeney, but at Otter Crest he revealed an incredible amalgam of Peterson, Tatum and Garner.

All the pianists here, in fact, were astonishing on their own levels: Ross Tompkins of "Tonight Show" fame; Roger Kellaway, the ultimate in wildly swinging eclecticism; and Gene Harris, best known as a hard-driving blues master, though one of the gentlest moments of the weekend was his slow, sensitive reading of "The Way We Were."

Like the Canadians and so many others, Harris is building his fame without needing or receiving much help from the U.S. Starting in September he will take his own big band on a three-month worldwide tour, subsidized by Philip Morris and helped by the State Department. He has many dates in Japan, as well as Moscow, all of Western Europe, Africa, Taiwan, Australia, Egypt, Seoul, and on and on. America? Ah, yes. There will be exactly one public concert in America.

Otter Crest offered us West Coasters a first glimpse of Ken Peplowski, who at 31 plays super-Goodman clarinet and doubles on Ben Webster vintage tenor sax; and Jay Leonhart, who revealed a rare flair for comedy with his own compositions. Singing and playing the bass, he sang "It's Impossible to Sing and Play the Bass." Among his other antic-manic works were a hymn of hate to Robert Frost inspired by his jealousy of the poet; a paean to pork; a paranoid poem called "They're Coming to Get Me." Leonhart is the wittiest jazzman-composer since Dave Frishberg (who was here on the final night to film a segment for the CBS "Sunday Morning" show).

You don't have to go far from Otter Crest to find appealing new sounds. Rob Thomas might be a world-class name if he were not based in Portland. Thomas played a five-string electric violin (the extra string is a low C, enabling him at times to resemble a viola); he doubled expertly on bass. Then there's Jan Stentz, the singer from Tacoma, who traded scat phrases with Jeff Clayton's alto sax, sang her own lyrics to Clare Fischer's "Pensativa" and Ruth Price's words to the Al Cohn tune "High on You."

On the other hand, Otter Crest was quite a hike for Satoru Oda, who brought his tenor sax from Tokyo, and for Jiggs Whigham, the Cleveland-born trombonist who for 23 years has lived in Cologne, where he teaches jazz at the conservatory.

The age span here was unusual; the audience, though mainly up in years, included a number of children. A touching moment was the appearance of Milt Hinton, the distinguished veteran bassist, with Jay Leonhart's 15-year-old son, the trumpeter Mike Leonhart, and a 16-year-old saxophonist, Marc Fendel. "Fifty years from now," Hinton said, "I want them to be able to say that they played with me." Fifty years from now (scientific developments permitting) Milt Hinton will be 129.

Because most of the musicians are fast readers who require little rehearsal, the final evening at Otter Crest found most of the cast assembled onstage for a series of big band charts, written or conducted by John Clayton, Rob McConnell and Bill Berry. The shifting personnel included Spike Robinson, who worked for 30 years as an engineer, gave it up to play tenor sax full time, and is now in demand for several European tours a year. At 59, he's suddenly famous, at least overseas.

The company formed by Jim and Mary Brown to present their concerts is known as Sound Ideas. The name could hardly be more apt. Anyone tired of the hullabaloo of jazz festivals in gigantic auditoriums, of saxophonists trying to outsqueak one another and of synthesizers, one more synthetic than the last, could do worse than dip his soul into the ethos represented by these uncommercialized, altruistically organized affairs.

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