Smooth jazz--the most commercially viable product of the jazz world--was on the menu Friday at the Universal Amphitheatre. And with a lineup that included Russ Freeman and the Rippingtons, the Craig Chaquico Band and tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri's group, there was the promise of a diversified bill of musical fare.
The groups did, indeed, have their individual distinctions. But the concert also underlined the fact that smooth jazz is primarily about accessible melodies and uncomplicated, foot-tapping rhythms. And in that sense, the musical repast was not quite as varied as it might have been.
From the perspective of melody, Barbieri did it best. In fact, his trademark style, founded upon his gravelly, but dramatically expository, tone, has always been focused upon melody, never more so than on his latest album, "Che Corazon." And the most attractive aspect of his set, despite the repetitious qualities of most of the tunes, was his capacity to bring a sense of emotive passion to every note he played. It made his set an island of expressiveness in a sea of cool but relatively passionless musical fluency.
To his credit, former Jefferson Starship guitarist Chaquico made a dynamic stage presentation. At one point, he made a brief foray into the audience; at other times he employed a variety of visual gimmickry--playing his guitar with his teeth, playing behind his back, etc. But none of it had much to do with enhancing the music. When he simply concentrated upon his pleasantly lyrical tunes, many from his new release, "Four Corners," the results were better.
The Rippingtons are justifiably viewed as one of the premier ensembles in smooth jazz. Guitarist Russ Freeman has transformed the group from a collection of dexterous studio musicians into a musically integrated band, capable of virtuosic solo passages to impressive collective sounds. Playing selections from their new album, "Topaz," the Rippingtons executed everything with the well-crafted efficiency of a Swiss watch. And Freeman, who has always seemed reluctant to take the spotlight, actually stepped forward on a number of occasions with panache.
Still, it was hard to resist the thought that a combination of all three groups might have made for the most appealing listening of all--Barbieri's passionate tenor saxophone, Chaquico's show-biz sensibilities and the Rippingtons' sheer musical proficiency. Now that would have been a real smooth jazz banquet.