Playing jazz without a drummer is much like tightrope-walking without a net. Without a firm footing, there’s a chance the music can take a nasty fall.
The duo of bassist John Leitham and pianist Shelly Berg, appearing Sunday at Spaghettini, managed not only to keep on its feet, but also to hit the ground running. Though they accounted for just two-thirds of what normally constitutes a rhythm section, timekeeping was not a problem. In fact, the two had no difficulty tracking the beat while keeping their instruments singing together in sympathetic style.
Experience, of course, plays some part in this, and both Leitham and Berg are well-practiced in their craft.
Leitham, who’s gone on from a short stint in the Woody Herman band to become a longtime member of Mel Torme’s touring combo, is one of Los Angeles’ most in-demand bassists, having worked with trombonist Bill Watrous, the late saxophonist Bob Cooper and drummer Ed Shaughnessy. He has a pair of fine albums out under his own name, the most recent of which, “Southpaw,” suggests both his love of baseball and the fact that he plays bass left-handed.
Berg, a professor of music at USC, makes area appearances regularly at such clubs as the Jazz Bakery in Culver City and Chadney’s in Burbank. He’s also in heavy demand for his writing talents, having arranged the small-group sessions for trombonist Watrous’ latest album and serving as musical director for the short-lived TV series “A League of Their Own.”
Together, they put on a fine show that was memorable not only for the quality of its musicianship but also for the way they complemented each other. The responsiveness that makes small-group jazz fascinating, here stripped to the bare essentials, was present in abundance. And, despite the lack of a drummer, the two took every opportunity to swing.
The character of the bass-piano sound makes for unusual audio twists, and the two took full advantage of this. Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” was a good example, with Leitham’s bass taking the familiar descending line theme as Berg added the barest of accompaniment. On the bop-walk “Moose the Mooch,” Leitham and Berg stated the bouncy melody in unison, before Berg took off into his solo propelled by Leitham’s astute pacing.
As an improviser, Leitham has few peers. He works close to the melody, as he did on Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You,” often sprinkling unbelievably brisk passages among his lyrical attack. His pitch, no matter how fast the tempo, is right on, and he decorates his play with a full complement of sliding tones, double-stops and up-register play.
Berg is an activist during improvisations, filling his statements with rolling passages, rifling ascending lines and various trills and flourishes that echoed Leitham’s or his own play. As an accompanist, he prefers to let the lead do the majority of the talking, adding spare, understated touches while keeping an ear open for lines from the bass that bear repeating.
Together, they gave a varied program that had them each taking long solos followed by a short series of exchanges on every tune.
They were especially romantic during “In a Sentimental Mood” (Leitham, referring to the piece’s sleepy tempo, called it “In a Semi-Mental Mood”), then followed with Leitham’s own funk-driven “Poonin’.” Leitham’s solo during Sam Jones’ “Bittersweet” was especially involved, concluding with a series of rich, deeply set tones.
Neither man missed having a drummer. And judging from the amount of foot-tapping that was going on (this was probably the most attentive crowd we’ve seen in the Spaghettini lounge), the audience didn’t miss hearing drums either.