George Van Eps is more than just a guitarist. He's a one-man orchestra.
At times Friday during his appearance at Vinnie's Ristorante with bassist Luther Hughes and drummer Jay Lecaire, the 79-year-old Van Eps brought so much harmonic depth to his playing that a listener without a view to the bandstand might have thought there were two, or maybe three guitarists at work. But then three guitarists wouldn't have blended sounds as smoothly as this one man did.
A pioneer of the seven-string guitar, Van Eps sometimes provided his own bass line (usually when playing unaccompanied), his own chordal accompaniment and his own lead. And if that weren't enough, he filled even the best-known standards with enough variations and rhythmic twists to keep even the most jaded listener at attention. In short, the man's a marvel.
Take, for example, his introduction to "Satin Doll." With bassist Hughes providing a single-note drone from his upright, Van Eps constructed a moody, minor key passage that did little to suggest the tune to come. After stretching out the harmony and adding a touch of dissonance here and there, he began to lift the number from its dark airs through a series of ascending chords that climbed right into (surprise!) the pleasantly upbeat "Satin Doll."
These sorts of introductions, usually unaccompanied, were the evening's most satisfying moments. Rhythm seemed suspended as he swirled through the opening to "A Foggy Day in London Town." On "I've Got a Crush on You," he swung with purpose before the bass and drums came in. He contrasted considered, single-note phrases with involved chords as he initiated "The Man I Love."
With support from drums and bass, Van Eps continued his harmonic lushness while bringing hints of playfulness to his improvisations. Bits and pieces of other tunes would surface here and there, and occasional blues touches would pop up in unexpected places. In a few instances, he would work up repeating chordal phrases that would lead to a triumphant moment of dramatic resolve.
All this isn't to suggest that Hughes and Lecaire were unnecessary participants in the performance. The bassist, who's seen locally more often with the electric version of his chosen instrument, has been getting a lot of practice on the upright lately touring with pianist Gene Harris' trio, and it showed.
His walk was firm and confident, and solos, though usually sticking closely to a tune's melody, moved across the entire range of his instrument. The exception was Cole Porter's "Night and Day," with Hughes' improvisation pushing the rhythmic envelope with only brief references to the melody played in double stops.
Drummer Lecaire played with reserved sizzle while taking every opportunity to respond to his partners' output with cymbal accents and snare punctuation. He often moved into double-time passages that seemed to inspire Van Eps to new heights, and when the beats threatened to dissolve, he'd move into a groove that drew the threesome together again.
On Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Quiet Nights, Quiet Stars," Hughes and Lecaire seemed out of step as Van Eps moved into the song. But as the guitarist joined the Brazilian-flavored number's theme, common ground was found and things began to simmer and bubble quite nicely. Afterward, Hughes explained to the standing-room only crowd that Van Eps had thrown them a curve by playing in an unexpected key. Van Eps, a gentleman to the end, just smiled slyly.
Van Eps will appear again in August at Vinnie's in Costa Mesa.