The Orange County Performing Arts Center made a wise choice when it selected Terence Blanchard to inaugurate its new Jazz Club at the Center series. The trumpeter's quartet with vocalist Philip Manuel took advantage of the new room's ambience and acoustics during Friday's premiere, delivering a concert-worthy performance that carried all the up-close impact of the club setting.
The center's new jazz format, according to series director Aaron Egigian, is an attempt to re-create the intimacy of the club experience while removing the pressure of assembling shows that can sell out its large concert hall. To accomplish this, the center's regular jazz series has been moved out of 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall and into the more intimate confines of Founders Hall, a rehearsal space set up in club style with a bandstand and seating for 230 at rows of cocktail tables draped in black.
No compromise has been made in the selection of performers for the series, with a lineup in the coming months that includes saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist Jacky Terrasson and trumpeter Jon Faddis with pianist Cyrus Chestnut. Blanchard, the 34-year-old Art Blakey graduate who has added visibility as a film-composer for Spike Lee, gave the club's premiere a definite note of respectability.
Despite the intimacy, Blanchard's appearance did not come with the usual club scene drawbacks. There were no blenders revving up with another batch of mai-tais during piano solos, and there was no idle chatter from disinterested guests. Servers respected the performance, not pestering guests for orders during the music and remaining unobtrusive when they delivered. The stage was keenly lit, the piano in tune and the well-defined acoustics were much sharper than what is heard from jazz groups in Segerstrom, putting all but the best-sounding clubs to shame.
Blanchard showcased the room's direct, natural sound by frequently moving away from his microphone as he played, allowing his trumpet tones to carry across the room without benefit of amplification. Singer Manuel, whose voice often served as a second, front-line instrument, also used little amplification at times, scatting themes in tandem with Blanchard or singing the music of Brazilian composer Ivan Lins in mournful Portuguese.
Before being joined by Manuel, Blanchard's combo with pianist Edward Simon, bassist David Pulphus and drummer Troy Davis explored Brazilian, New Orleans and post-bop rhythms all played in an intense, tightly executed manner. Simon and Blanchard especially brought an honesty and depth of feeling to their play that encouraged cheers and hearty applause from the audience. That, in turn, seemed to have an enlivening effect on the musicians, just as happens in jazz clubs around the world.
* Next Jazz Club at the Center performance is pianist Jacky Terrasson's trio, Nov. 29-30, 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. (714) 556-2787.