A Mexican restaurant in a shopping mall seems an unlikely venue for jazz. But that's just what El Matador has become. The room's intimate confines, tiny bandstand and direct sound made a perfect forum Friday for a quartet pulled together by bassist and KLON-FM DJ Luther Hughes that included respected keyboardist Tom Ranier and well-known saxophonist and Orange County resident Eric Marienthal.
Best known for his work with Chick Corea and his own series of recordings on GRP, Marienthal lived up to expectations, showering the well-lit room with long, needling lines and wailing displays of emotion. Alternating between tenor and alto, the saxophonist fairly strip-mined his solos, leaving no tone unturned as he searched the scales relentlessly for the perfect phrase.
By contrast, Ranier's keyboard statements were less pushy but just as emotional. Though unable to get much dynamic response from the electric keyboard he was using (something he utilizes to advantage when playing acoustic), Ranier built his solo statements logically, backing long, sinewy lines from his right hand with muscular chords from his left. The thoughtfulness of his improvisational work conveyed brains and heart as well as brawn, and the keyboardist's ballad solos may have been the most satisfying.
Hughes pulled warm, mellow tones from his five-string electric bass and showed an inclination for melodicism when he soloed. But he also worked some rhythmic charm, hammering out funky bottom with his thumb on more syncopated pieces. Drummer Charlie Landis, who seems to favor his snare, provided appropriate drive.
Though the quartet had no regular experience working together (Ranier, Hughes and Landis appeared together at El Matador Thursday before Marienthal joined them Friday and Saturday), things seemed to mesh pretty well. The group opened with a rabbit-paced "No Greater Love," Marienthal zipping through the familiar changes on alto with unrelenting vigor until closing with shouts. Coasting along on Landis' simmering snare play and tom-tom accents, Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time" (from the film "On the Town") gave the saxophonist a chance to show off some nifty rotary breathing.
Despite their lack of experience together, the group didn't stick to the safety of standard rehashes. Marienthal's ballad "Lee Ann," from his "Round Trip" recording, had the saxophonist, again on alto, working a long, soulful road that ended in a climax of cries and shrieks. And, in a show of their willingness to take on something new, the men passed around the sheet music to make a go of Ranier's "An Hour From Your Heart," a vehicle for the keyboardist's sensitive style.
Tail-kicking tempos brought challenges to the more familiar material. John Coltrane's "Mr. P.C." was played with a whirlwind of rhythmic support from Hughes and Landis, while Marienthal used his tenor to call up Trane's ghost with screams and an appropriately rough-edged tone. An equally furious "Giant Steps" gave Ranier a chance to show some speed, while Landis contributed snap and crackle.
The proximity of musicians to listeners had a lot to do with the evening's success. There's nothing like watching--and hearing--the spontaneous interplay that results when players of this caliber are working a small room. With plans to bring in performers ranging from fusion guitarist Grant Geissman to Latin percussionist Poncho Sanchez, it looks like El Matador has more of a good thing on the way.