How great is pianist Pete Jolly's attraction? One longtime fan who attended the performance of Jolly's trio at Steamers Cafe on Friday had flown in from Connecticut. Though the man has collected Jolly's records ever since he first saw the pianist on Steve Allen's television show in early '60s, he'd never seen Jolly perform live.
Knowing that someone had traveled cross-country to Fullerton to hear him play must have inspired Jolly: He was particularly inventive and attuned to his sidemen during the evening's first set. Working a mix of jazz standards, ballads and his own Grammy-nominated original "Little Bird," which had been specifically requested by the man from Connecticut, Jolly took his play from its usual relaxed competency and made the evening worth a 3,000-mile journey.
The Jolly trio, together for more than 30 years, has a reputation for hand-in-glove play. The threesome lived up to that reputation, despite the fact that Bob Maize substituted for Jolly's usual bassist, Chuck Berghofer, who was working elsewhere. Drummer Nick Martinis was especially assertive, playing strongly against fast tempos, coaxing mood and shading from his kit with brushes on the ballads.
Jolly's sound was rich and vivacious, often belying his reputation as a conservative pianist. He opened at mid-tempo with a strongly embellished "June Nights," then moved into an exhilarating up-tempo solo. On Horace Silver's "Yeah!" (the title tune from Jolly's last album), he spiced his sound with chords as thick as hand-cut bacon and harmonies that made them sizzle. On "Milestones," his left hand kept up the famous clipped melody while his right took up a fast-moving tale with a minor-key feel. An extended quote from Eden Ahbez's haunting "Nature Boy" closed the tune.
The pianist seemed less patient with the ballads, toying heavily with "Over the Rainbow," reharmonizing the verse to accent its melancholy mood. The theme from the Sammy Cahn-Axel Stordahl-Paul Weston favorite "I Should Care" went nearly unrecognized but was beautiful behind its veil. The pianist's most sensitive reading came during the second set, when he played "Never, Never Land" from "Peter Pan."
Maize, no stranger to the pianist's style, proved every bit as agile and sensitive as regular bassist Berghofer. He was crisp and propulsive behind Jolly on Miles Davis' "Four," then used his bow for a stirring, well-pitched improvisation that floated above Martinis' brushes. The bassist's rhythmic approach on Jolly's 1963 "Little Bird" gave the tune a Latin feel.
The heat of the night's music shows that Jolly continues to evolve along a path that contradicts the usual "cool" notions of West Coast jazz. His play, much in the spirit of the late Hampton Hawes and other "hot" West Coast musicians of the late-'50s and '60s, also showed influence from New York-based pianist Kenny Barron and other contemporaries.
And the fan from the East Coast? He headed back to Connecticut on Saturday. Happy.