This year’s annual KSBR-FM Jazz Bash found the nearly 30 participating musicians in a mood more competitive than cooperative.
True, no fistfights broke out, and the musicians displayed their equanimity moving on and off the stage while sharing the feature spotlight, but one-upmanship was the order of the day. Bassists, saxophonist, keyboardists and drummers sought to outdo one another as they took their turns.
This cutting session atmosphere made for some exciting performances, as every tune, no matter its title became “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better.” The winners in all of this were those assembled to witness the showdown for more than four hours on the grounds of the Dana Point Resort.
The mood was set from the opening note when fluegelhornist Tony Guerrero, who also served as emcee for the event, brought some 10 musicians on the stage to play his ‘60s era funk number “Bumpin’.” The saxophonists (Mike Gealer, Brandon Fields and Greg Vail) jockeyed for position as the guitarists (Gannin Arnold and Thom Rotella) traded accompanying licks. Only the percussionists (Stu Nevitt of Shadowfax and the untiring Dr. Como) were of one mind.
Guerrero established the take-no-prisoners approach with a hyperactive solo as notable for its lyrical content as for its insatiable thrust. The fluegelhornist brought the band slowly down to a whisper while he uttered smacks and kisses from his horn before the ensemble roared back into the danceable riff at the Bash, the fifth such event held to mark the end of the contemporary jazz music station’s yearly fund-raising drive.
A quintet remained on the stage for Rotella’s “Bring on the Nights,” a moderately paced heart-warmer that opened with Gealer’s singing soprano lines and some classic, Wes Montgomery-inspired guitar chords. Gealer demonstrated fine ways with the melody during his improvisation, followed by the guitarist’s cream-colored solo that spoke of desire and romance.
With keyboardist Sandy Owen at the grand piano, Gealer, now on tenor, showed some strength with a boom-boom styled improv during what Guerrero dubbed “a stripper tune.” Saxophonist Fields, known for his fiery side, showed some heart during his alto solo on Alphonse Mouzon’s mid-tempo ballad “On Top of the World.” Tenor man Vail got the day’s biggest ovation for his dynamics during a yet-to-be-titled Guerrero tune.
Among the keyboardists, Bill Brendle showed his savvy during “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” an exercise that Guerrero decorated with risque plunger mute decoration. Rob Mullins took a mainstream approach on his own “Plus Three,” strumming inside the box of the piano for effect before delivering rollicking, Herbie Hancock-influenced statements. Freddie Ravel worked up both electric excitement on a keyboard slung guitar-style over his shoulder and acoustic lushness at the grand.
Pianist Dan Siegel’s narrative style was put to good effect on “Bumpin’,” and Tom Zink coaxed harmonica-styled sounds from his synthesizer on a number from saxophonist Sonya Jason.
But the day’s keyboard highlight was from Mike Garson, whose detailed reading of Miles Davis’ “Nardis” won a large ovation from the crowd.
There was no contest among the battle of the basses. Brian Bromberg won the heavyweight title with technical wizardry and amazing harmonics during his own “Tunnel Vision.” Max Bennett showed a more lyrical approach during Mouzon’s “On Top of the World” while Luther Hughes claimed the prize for rhythmic astuteness during a salsa-fired version of “Autumn Leaves” that featured violinist Susie Hansen and guitarist Ricardo Silveira.
The drummers played to a draw. Mouzon’s high-powered rolls and rattles were matched by smart timekeeper Clyde Davis. Mouzon showed his sensitive side during “Nardis,” utilizing claps from his high-hat cymbal to embellish the moody piece. Evan Stone was particularly funky during “Tunnel Vision,” playing with the enthusiasm that makes him one of the most exciting young timekeepers on the local scene.
Other standout guitar performances came from Arnold, who also took a couple of turns on congas, Randell Young with his spare, urban-flavored approach during “The Thrill Is Gone” and Dave Murdy, who recalls popular guitarist John Scofield in both style and appearance. Vocalist Lionel Cole and harmonica player Tollak Ollestad made unchallenged, yet valuable contributions.
The day’s overall effect served to debunk the myth that contemporary jazz lacks the improvisational fire of its mainstream cousin, and that its musical forms demand more by-the-book playing rather than cut-loose individuality. The jam session atmosphere allowed the musicians to keep their own identities, even when playing someone else’s music (as in past years, Guerrero and talent manager Lucille Hunt solicited originals from the participating musicians while keeping the number of standards to a minimum). The results, without benefit of rehearsal, were solidly rewarding.