A rare Guitar Night that fails to click

Special to The Times

JOHN PISANO'S Guitar Nights at Spazio in Sherman Oaks are among the Southland's most dependable jazz destinations. Every Tuesday, the versatile Pisano -- whose resume includes stints with Chico Hamilton, Joe Pass, the Tijuana Brass and Frank Sinatra -- showcases a loose, relaxed encounter with another world-class jazz guitarist.

Given the different styles coursing through the contemporary guitar world, the resulting music can stretch across a kaleidoscopic range, with one week's acoustic jazz contrasting with the next week's electric jazz rock-driven sounds. But the one fairly consistent aspect has been the appeal of the two-guitar interaction between Pisano and his guest.

Tuesday night's meeting with Phil Upchurch (a veteran associate of, among others, Muddy Waters, Grover Washington, Michael Jackson and Chaka Khan) took a somewhat different tack. The opening set started promisingly enough with a quick-fingered romp through "Oleo" in which both guitarists displayed their bebop roots.

But Billy Strayhorn's "Daydream," one of the loveliest -- if too rarely performed -- tunes in the repertoire of jazz ballads, was the first step away from the sense of spontaneity that is such a primal element in the success of the Guitar Nights. With Pisano reading a chord chart, and the rhythmic connection with Upchurch slightly out of sync, the only real sense of swing and propulsion was provided by bassist Ernest Tibbs and drummer Tim Pleasant.

That was a pattern that surfaced intermittently for the next couple of sets. "Someday My Prince Will Come" and "Just Friends" brought out the best in both players, with Pisano playing a particularly impressive solo on the latter. Other pieces -- a well-meant but confused rendering of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and a murky "Girl Talk" -- were more notable for revealing the differences rather than the compatible connectivity between the two guitarists.

And when Upchurch brought one of his students -- a 14-year-old -- on stage for a number (while Pisano departed the stage), the engaging essence of the Tuesday Guitar Nights pretty much disappeared. Which was a shame, because Upchurch and Pisano are superb individual artists, and the numbers in which they came together clearly disclosed the potential for musical togetherness. Unfortunately, those moments were too few and far between.

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