Spontaneous Attraction : Jim and Martha Hession's quintet blends a broad repertoire with the element of surprise.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times

It's not unusual for the audience not to know what a jazz band might do next, but with Jim and Martha Hession's American Jazz Quin tet, the same goes for the musicians.

"We set the tone for each individual piece right there on the spot," says Jim Hession, the group's pianist. "We don't have set arrangements. We like to see how a number will develop."

"And if one player heads in a certain direction, the tune might change completely, say maybe going from a straight-ahead to a Latin feel," says Martha Hession, who sings.

The Hessions' group features Sylvester LeBlanc (reeds), Tim Powell (bass) and Donald Dean (drums). The fivesome has an indefinite Sunday engagement at Jax, and one reason the band has been able to continue to draw loyal fans, says Martha, is that listeners really like the ensemble's come-what-may attitude.

"They're waiting to see what will happen, too. It's like a meeting of the minds," says Martha, who has been married to Jim for 26 years. "When you have people who come expecting something spontaneous, exciting and entertaining, who relish the interaction between the musicians, it's fun, and that's the joy of it."

Because the group tackles an amazingly broad repertoire--from early jazz to mainstream, be-bop and blues--with authenticity and verve, it is one of the most appealing bands working in Southern California. And since the musicians know around a thousand songs from all eras of American popular music, requests from the audience are both a welcome and stimulating aspect of a Hession performance.

"Sometimes someone will ask for a tune that we haven't done in years," says Martha, who with her husband and various musicians, including the late reed man Curtis Peagler, performs on "Blues for Mr. Sea Pea," a CD on TAM Records. "Like the other night, someone wanted to hear the blues 'High Heel Sneakers' and that turned into wild fun."


Both Hessions have remarkable musical ability. Jim Hession is a fine pianist who can play with both precision and fire, and Martha Hession employs her five-octave-range soprano with enviable ease and emotionality. Annet Peairs, who books Jax, is a fan. "Jim is one of the best pianists I've ever heard, and Martha's versions of the great standards by Berlin, Porter and Gershwin are wonderful," she says.

The Hessions first met in the late '60s, when Pasadena native Jim, then a student at UCLA, was appearing at a club in San Diego, Martha's hometown. When she also began attending UCLA--from which both eventually graduated with music degrees--they started to perform together, working as a duo at Disneyland and other venues.

At the time, Jim had a deep knowledge of classic jazz--he was enamored of such early jazz giants as pianists Fats Waller and Eubie Blake--while his wife-to-be, who was then also playing piano, was fond of more modern musicians. They combined repertoires, Martha says.

Meeting Blake, one of the founding fathers of jazz, at a party in 1969 proved fortuitous for the pair. "Jim played and Eubie said, 'Let's cut a record,' " Martha recalls.

On the album--"Eubie Blake Introduces Jim Hession"--Jim says, "He (Blake) recorded originals of his and some older songs, while I did tunes by Dave Brubeck and Earl 'Fatha' Hines." By this time, Hession was listening to some very modern pianists.

Still, his interest in early American music did not abate, and he and his wife established deep friendships with Blake and swing-era jazz master pianists Teddy Wilson and Johnny Guarnieri.

After several years at Disneyland, then Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and tours in other states, the Hessions have been pretty much headquartered in Eagle Rock since the mid-'80s. They perform at numerous Southern California venues and wouldn't trade their existence for anything. "With music, you're always growing," says Martha. "When I reach for something musical and I get it, it's better than anything," says Jim



What: Jim and Martha Hession and the American Jazz Quintet.

Location: Jax Bar & Grill, 339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.

Hours: 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Sundays.

Price: No cover, no minimum.

Call: (818) 500-1604.

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