It's been 35 years since alto saxophonist Herb Geller left California to live and work in Germany. But the West Coast sound that Geller helped champion here in the '50s is still very much alive in his music.
Playing Saturday at Fullerton's Steamers Cafe on the second night of a two-night stand, Geller, 69 and worlds away from the days when he was a regular with trumpeter Shorty Rogers at the Lighthouse in Redondo Beach, proved he's still a vital player brimming with ideas. Working in a quintet that included equally distinguished California musicians Conte Candoli on trumpet and Lou Levy on piano, as well as bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Paul Kreibich, Geller proved that the West Coast school of music, based on bebop and musical agility, knows no bounds.
Traces of various West Coast saxophonists could be heard in Geller's play: the fire of Art Pepper, the intellect of Jimmy Giuffre, the abandon of Bud Shank. But Geller's sound, apparent on both bop and ballads, seems to issue from a deep personal source and ultimately emerges as a celebration of song. He's a saxophonist whose love of playing can be heard in every note.
Geller opened in tight unison with Candoli's trumpet on the carefree yet demanding theme of Charlie Parker's "Confirmation," an exercise that later featured the saxophonist's light, Pepper-like preciseness and playful sense of improvisation. This somewhat soft tone was equally effective on "Quiet Nights," which featured a Geller solo full of attractive intervals and strong melodic sense.
The saxophonist finished on an upbeat note with Tadd Dameron's bop anthem "Hot House," a tune in which Geller delivered all the heat and flame suggested in the title. Playing several measures without accompaniment, Geller fused a perfect blend of rhythm and lyricism, all played at a frantic pace.
Trumpeter Candoli, the Stan Kenton and Howard Rumsey veteran best known to the general public for his long association with Doc Severinsen's "Tonight Show" band, added Miles Davis-influenced muted tones on "Quiet Nights" and sparkling, though short, middle-range phrases during "If I Were a Bell." His muted solo on "I Should Care" referenced Chet Baker with its touching melodicism.
Levy, the pianist known for his work with Stan Getz and such singers as Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald, employed a spare, waste-not sense of accompaniment and solos that cut to the meat of the matter. His skills were most evident when, minus the rest of the band, he backed singer Pinky Winters for a trio of ballads.
Coming in the middle of Geller's set, the Winters-Levy interlude tended to break up the momentum the saxophonist and band had established. But for this one distraction, Geller's performance was a monument to inventiveness and interplay, one that marked him as a giant of West Coast jazz, even if he has been an expatriate for more than three decades.