Jazz Review : Irvine Fest Lives Up to Promise but Fails to Stir Crowd


It was sometime during drummer Ralph Penland's midafternoon performance of Herbie Hancock's blustery "Eye of the Hurricane" when the sun broke through the clouds to shine on the Southern California Jazz Festival. It was a nicely ironic touch for Saturday's edition of the fest, held on two stages between high-rises and the San Diego Freeway on the grounds of the Koll Center.

Until then, the weather situation had been touch and go. Friday's opening installment of the three-day event ended prematurely under an early evening downpour.

Luckily, despite further threats of rain after the sun went down Saturday, the festival's first complete day kept its musical promise.

Though the overall lineup weighed in heavily on the side of beat-driven, contemporary sounds, the day's schedule provided enough contrast to interest even the most jaded listeners. Mixed in with the synthesizer wash, booming bass and the whine of electric guitars were mainstream jazz combos, a New Orleans-styled piano professor and a cabaret vocalist.

If that wasn't enough, one could always wander away from the stages to peruse the wares of arts and craft dealers as well as sample foods from 17 area restaurants.

None of the bands was able to stir the crowd, estimated by this reviewer at no more than 2,000 during its peak, into a dance-party frenzy as seems to happen at least once each day at the annual Playboy Festival held in the Hollywood Bowl. Maybe fans were too comfortable wrapped in blankets and ensconced on their lawn chairs to get up and boogie. But there were a number of musical highlights.

The day's most entertaining set came from A. J. Croce, the 22-year-old son of the late singer-songwriter Jim Croce.

Seated at the grand piano, Croce has the good, slick-backed looks of Harry Connick Jr., but, unlike Connick, his musical view looks to low, rather than high, society. Backed by a three-piece horn section, guitar bass and drums, Croce spun tales, sang the blues and played rollicking, barrel-house-styled piano.

He preluded almost all of his numbers with a clever story tagged with the line, "and it feels something like this."

The most amazing thing about Croce is his voice, a gruff, serious instrument that sounds as if it might come from someone much older. His well-paced delivery on the seasoned standard "Trouble in Mind" reflected more dues paying than someone of his 22 years has probably seen.

At the piano, Croce is a blend of Art Tatum and Jerry Lee Lewis mixing jazz-inspired lines with trills and glissandi.

Closing act Richard Elliot got down on his knees to play his tenor sax. The former Tower of Power horn section man applied strong R & B chops to his beat-minded selections, playing aggressively with a bit of raunch here and there, or working with warmth and intimacy as he did on "I'm Not in Love."

The festival ran close to schedule, falling 15 to 30 minutes behind as the evening wore on. Sound from the main stage, despite the white noise generated by the freeway, was passable if not perfect. But sound from the second stage was uneven, marred by bad balance and variations in volume. Though the weather held down attendance, this is an event that deserves a repeat performance in front of larger audiences next year.

The festival's Sunday schedule, which ran too late for this review, included Keiko Matsui, John Patitucci and Patrice Rushen and Ndugu Chancler.

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