Saturday afternoon's sparsely attended installment of the Hyatt Newporter Jazz Festival kept what crowd there was jumping. With music at three different sites on the hotel grounds, sometimes happening simultaneously, fans were kept busy moving between the pool terrace, the outdoor amphitheater and the indoor lounge to catch the strictly mainstream festivities. And all that exercise was well rewarded.
The best was last. Don Menza and fellow tenor saxophonist Larry Covelli showered the amphitheater crowd with be-bop lines and competitive exchanges that seemed to swirl more deeply into complex territory as they went on. Their rendition of "Stringin' the Jug," the 1950s tune that originally pitted Sonny Stitt against Gene (Jug) Ammons in what saxophonists liked to call a "cutting session," found the two horns trading fleet, needling statements tempered with a little yakety sax in a no-losers face-off. Menza's unaccompanied opening to "Lover Man" was a model of warmth and mellowness, while Covelli's improvisation on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" was plump with soulful emotion.
The quintet benefited from the big-shouldered bass support provided by John Heard and sensitive brushwork and cymbal coloring from drummer Chuck Flores. Pianist Tom Ranier offered dense accompaniment and improvisational fireworks on " 'S Marvelous," but cleverly reduced the soaring feel of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" to a walking-paced whisper during his solo on the Harold Arlen tune.
Earlier in the day, a trio led by Ranier that included bassist Jim Hughart and percussionist Peter Donald replaced drummer Frank Capp's no-show ensemble. The three men did a competent first set of standards that highlighted Ranier's sizzling right hand and Donald's whip-snap drumming on "Scrapple From the Apple," as well as firm, melodic bass statements from Hughart on "My Foolish Heart." Singer Barbara Morrison joined them for a second set which featured her brassy, full-of-character voice on Stix Hooper's "Never Make Your Move Too Soon." Ranier demonstrated his versatility by belting out a Les McCann-style solo on the bluesy swing tune.
Opening in the amphitheater, the Irvine-based husband and wife team of Elena and George Gilliam presented ballads and cool bossa rhythms to a small, sunbaked crowd. Elena's breathy, romantic vocal approach worked well on a tune entitled "Seeking," and she took a too brief turn at scatting on "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me." Her phrasing on "If I Had You," a tune she introduced as a Dinah Washington favorite, held suggestions of Washington's phrasing, but with her own rich, suggestive tone. Guitarist George pulled a snappy improvisation from the piece, subtly changing the dynamics and adding fill with sweet, well-timed chording.
A standout in the Gilliams' quintet, which also included bassist Eric Stiller and drummer Donald Dean, was pianist Kevin Kearney.
Indoors at Duke's Nite Club, valve trombonist Mike Fahn's quartet, fittingly enough, paid tribute to Ellington with "In a Sentimental Mood." Fahn treated the standard with a deep, contemplative sound that was echoed by electric keyboardist Tad Weed's bell-like chords and smart, lyrical support from bassist Tom Warrington. Drummer Kevin Tullius, who can be heard on a weekly basis at the Balboa Studio Cafe with a group called the Promise, worked a slash-and-burn technique that balanced the pitch of his tom-toms with punctuation from his snare and cymbals.
The festival continued Saturday night with a scheduled appearance by Anita O'Day and Sunday afternoon with the Chuck Findley-Conte Candoli Quintet, Stephanie Haynes, Charles Rutherford's Big Band and the Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Orchestra.