Pianist gets to play for fun

Special to The Times

Pianist Mike Melvoin is the consummate music business professional. With collaborations reaching from Stan Getz and Frank Sinatra to Cher and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, with a long list of television and film scores, specials and documentaries, it's obvious that Melvoin (the first active musician to serve as president of the Recording Academy) has all the characteristics of a musical Renaissance man.

Less apparent is the fact that he also is an impressive jazz artist. And his performance Sunday at Giannelli Square in Northridge provided an opportunity to hear him in the best possible setting, away from the demands of the music business, completely immersed in a wide-open, uncluttered, pure-jazz setting.

Accompanied by longtime associates Tony Dumas (bass) and Ralph Penland (drums), Melvoin devoted his opening set to material from his just-released CD, "You Know," a blend of standards and originals. The resulting program opened the floodgates for a steady flow of imaginative, bop-driven improvising.

"I'll Be Seeing You" and "Long Ago and Far Away" were framed in lyricism and driven by an urgent sense of swing, aided by Dumas' sturdy foundation and Penland's subtle manipulation of rhythm. John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" retained the piece's thorny harmonies while being injected with whimsical references to "Stompin' at the Savoy."

Melvoin's originals further amplified the amiable combination of wit, imagination and swing at the heart of his music. His vocal rendering of "They Sing the Blues in Kansas City" was juxtaposed against his keyboard quotations from the classic Charlie Parker blues solo in "K.C. Blues."

"Son of the Beach" somehow managed to re-create the massive sound blocks and irrepressible drive of the Count Basie band with nothing more than spare instrumentation.

As a soloist, Melvoin exploited an improvisational style with roots that reached back to players such as Red Garland and Wynton Kelly, and that were enlivened by a classically based articulation that produced a rare facility with touch and timbre. His performance revealed the extent to which Melvoin's far-reaching life experience has become filtered into a richly engaging, warmly communicative musicality.

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