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JAZZ REVIEW : Feel-Good Tunes Find a Home at Long Beach Fest

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Unlike the Playboy Jazz Festival, which poses as a serious musical event, the Long Beach Jazz Festival harbors no illusions and has no artistic pretensions. At the city’s scenic Rainbow Lagoon, it’s an outdoor jazz party, pure and simple.

The good-time tradition continued during Saturday’s edition of the three-day, eighth annual fest. Nearly 10 hours of music included two soul-fired saxophonists, three singers with ears for the popular, a contemporary quartet led by a television personality, and a respected, R&B-styled; sax-organ team.

And, though few and often far between, there were times when artistic expression and feel-good sounds existed together, giving cause for serious jazz fans and party animals to celebrate.

Most satisfying along these lines were saxophonist Hank Crawford and organist Jimmy McGriff, whose midday, sunshine-drenched performance touched both the soul and the intellect. Fronting a quartet that mixed blues of all tempos with the occasional ballad, they combined McGriff’s crisp organ chords and bass pedal walks with Crawford’s cries and pleading lines in a set full of easy-to-like grooves.

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Still, what the two played over those grooves made the bigger impression. At slower tempos, McGriff coaxed bubbling lines from the Hammond that spilled over into whining, chordal screams. Crawford worked these lazier tempos with shaded, blues-flavored improvisations, bending notes, adding some roughness to his tone and closing out with exclamations in the upper register. On upbeat numbers, McGriff’s insistent, bass-pedal drive powered smart exchanges of chords and simmering sax lines.

Behind it all, guitarist Carl Lockett generated synthesizer effects that ranged from vibes to strings--and provided some B. B. King-influenced guitar work as well. Drummer Don Williams was particularly aggressive, sometimes to the point of busy-ness. But by the time the group closed with “Georgia on My Mind” and an upbeat “Teach Me Tonight,” it had captured the crowd with lively delivery and uncompromising musical standards.

Surprisingly, singer Diane Schuur, leading an acoustic trio, also was able to transcend the party atmosphere. Sounding in better voice than she has lately, she also made better use of the piano, contributing well-rounded if not ambitious improvisations. To her credit, Schuur, who usually closes every number in the upper register at top volume, found a number of ways to draw songs to a close, sometimes letting the piano speak for her.

The rest of the day’s program served mainly as background.

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Najee’s closing set got the biggest response from a crowd estimated at 5,000. Though the saxophonist displayed impressive chops, especially on flute during a beat-minded version of John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” (which he dedicated to the late Phyllis Hyman), his material was weighted toward backbeat and hip-hop affectation. Percussionist and rapper Craig (Butter) Glanville was only sporadically interesting as he swirled around his instruments or contributed wordless rhythmic effects.

Tenor saxophonist Richard Elliot, playing his tediously deliberate themes against accessible rhythms, milked the crowd shamelessly with long-held tones--sometimes played on his knees. At one point during his performance of “Stiletto Heels,” a scuffle broke out in the crowd and Elliot rushed to the spot, playing all the while, as security separated the offenders. Elliot then continued to move through the crowd, often at a sprinter’s pace, plying his sound directly to delighted individuals.

His guitarist, Richard Smith, provided strong rhythm on electric and a moment of flamenco flash when featured on acoustic. At one point, an overhead spotlight exploded, showering glass down onto the stage near the guitarist who danced easily out of the way, never missing a lick.

Singer Marlena Shaw, with sterling backing from an acoustic quartet (pianist Dwight Dickerson, saxophonist Herman Riley, bassist Andy Simpkins and drummer Sherman Ferguson), played to the audience with spoken risque tales that led comically into familiar standards. Her cross-dressing introduction to “You’ve Changed” got the day’s biggest laugh.

Singer Carl Anderson relied too much on volume to make an impression in a set that touched on rock, reggae and Cuban music. A beat-minded version of Thelonious Monk’s “ ‘Round Midnight” included some Bobby McFerrin-styled scat that Anderson delivered with varying dynamics, but overall his enthusiastic presentation came at one volume: loud. A sprinkling of instrumental numbers from his keyboardist, Freddie Ravel, often upstaged the vocalist’s uneven performance.

Bassist (and airborne traffic reporter) Jennifer York’s quartet mixed upbeat originals with contemporary versions of “Scrapple From the Apple” and “Night in Tunisia.” Though York was the most visible presence here, band mates Janine Del Arte on saxophone, Alexandra Caselli on keyboards and Suzanne Morissette on drums added much to the group’s legitimacy. York used both acoustic and electric instruments, generating a big, woody sound with the former and firm rhythmic pulses with the latter.

The day’s most straight-ahead set came from the 18-piece Woodbridge High School Jazz Ensemble of Irvine, directed by Joslynne Blasdel. Its brief but competent program of swing and samba numbers made a promising impression. The group, which won first place in the high school division of the Orange County Jazz Expo in May, featured singer Kevin Oderkirk, who turned in a confident, swinging version of “Orange Colored Sky.”

The festival, which started Friday, was to continue Sunday with Nancy Wilson, the Jazz Crusaders and others.

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