Bassist Christian McBride and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano share the same musical spirit, even though they play different instruments, favor different types of material and were born 20 years apart (Lovano in 1952, McBride in 1972). The two, both natural virtuosos, bring a sincere, childlike enthusiasm to their music that seems unbounded by technique or lack of imagination.
It was this playful quality of invention and vivacity that made their double-bill concert Saturday at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex on the campus of Cal State L.A. so rewarding. As they led their respective quartets, both seemed completely enwrapped in their performance, drawing the audience inside their music with visible exuberance as they played.
Lovano's set, rather than focusing on music from his current release, "Celebrating Sinatra," took a wider view with Thelonious Monk's "Work," Jimmy Van Heusen's ballad "Imagination," the saxophonist's ambitious piece "New York Fascination" and a closing, honk-and-shout number that led naturally into McBride's more beat-minded material.
No matter the mood or the tempo, Lovano delivered the kind of play that made one forget his prodigious technique and instead fall under the spell of his continually unfolding story line. He was matched in this prosodic approach by pianist Kenny Werner, whose unaccompanied introduction to "New York Fascination" held classical overtones before bouncing into the hubbub of the urban-life theme.
McBride, who's made no secret of his admiration for James Brown, surprised the audience by spending the last half of his set on electric bass, showing the same kind of taste and technical facility on that instrument that he does on the upright. He closed the show with a medley of funk and dance music from Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, the Commodores and Herbie Hancock, a ploy that brought cheers from the audience.
On upright, McBride played the most difficult passages with ease as he deconstructed the standard "Alone Together" and danced through the multiple changes of his own "Whirling Dervish." Through pianist Charles Craig's acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes electric keyboard, the big-beat drumming of Carl Allen and saxophonist's Tim Warfield's inquisitive, needling tenor play, McBride found an inviting middle ground between contemporary and traditional jazz styles.
The 16-piece Cal State L.A. Jazz Ensemble directed by Jeff Benedict opened the evening with competent performances of familiar numbers from Duke Ellington and Count Basie as well as more modern pieces by written by Yellowjackets saxophonist Bob Mintzer and arranger Maria Schneider.