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JAZZ REVIEW : Happy Days Are Here Again With Max Bennett

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Max Bennett delivers contemporary fusion-oriented jazz that has “sunny days” stamped all over it.

Fronting his five-man Maxx Band Saturday, the second of two nights at El Matador, the veteran bassist ran through a nine-tune first set that sparked the imagination and made one forget the recent blustery, arctic-like weather.

These weren’t tunes designed for a heavy, intense listening experience. Rather, the brief, innocent themes composed by Bennett--who has worked with Peggy Lee, Jazz at the Philharmonic and the L.A. Express--and their mostly easy and flowing rhythmic underpinnings recalled relaxing afternoons by the ocean or carefree drives up the coast.

Some had titles to match their moods. “Midnight Cruiser,” a dusky, insistent number with a sensuous bossa/rock beat that shifted to more swinging time, certainly sounded like motoring music. So did “The Long Road” and “Coastal Blues,” a slower piece with built-in repose. “Jack the Giant Killer"--an aggressive appellation--was by far the most energy-charged song in the set. The selections were played with snap, authority and taste.

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The 63-year-old Bennett looked spiffy with his white hair cut short except for a ponytail, his wire-rimmed glasses and pink shirt and jeans. His younger partners were guitarist Brian Price, saxophonist Jeff Jorgenson, drummer Ray Brinker and guest keyboardist Rob Whitlock.

The opening “High Rollers,” featuring a Jorgenson solo on tenor that exhibited his resonant middle range, segued into “Midnight Cruiser” where Whitlock, consistently the evening’s most effective soloist, coaxed a modified electric piano sound from his synthesizer. He used that ringing sound to offer zesty ideas--lines zipped up, turned around and then descended; clusters seemed to spin in place--that he strung together into a well-constructed statement.

The subsequent “Brazilia” exemplified the cohesion of the rhythm section, which gave the various soloists a solid boost. The lyrical melody was rendered with passion by Jorgenson on soprano sax (though his tone was a tad whiny).

Whitlock then took the spotlight again, as Bennett, Brinker and Price created a warm tropical feeling that enhanced his sinuous playing. At one point, Price set up a groove with a series of chunk-a-chunking chords, as Bennett picked his notes precisely, fitting in with the guitarist’s pattern. Brinker then added pulsing fills, increasing the heat.

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The leisurely ballad “I Need You Now,” with Jorgenson’s tenor again sounding as juicy as a ripe beefsteak tomato, found Price issuing thick, electrified tones that brought Eric Clapton’s style to mind, while Whitlock went for an ear-pleasing Hammond B-3 organ tone.

The medium-to-slow pace of the set was jarred nicely by the closing “Jack,” a gritty, up-tempo piece that added a dash of color (a few more tunes like “Jack” tossed in now and again would give Bennett’s show a little more spine).

“Jack” was lively and invigorating, despite Price’s use of feedback to get a wiry rock ‘n’ roll sound that didn’t fit in the band’s jazz context. On this selection, Bennett played his only solo, a concise affair highlighted by his delicate slapping technique, as he used his thumb and forefinger to issue two notes at once.


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