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Jazz Review : Return Of A Phantom Of Be-bop

September 01, 1987|DON HECKMAN

The setting outside the Irvine Holiday Inn had all the ambiance of an Arthur Clarke fantasy of the future: stark rectangles and squares surrounded by the geometrical precision of neatly trimmed hedges and pristine fountains. It's the sort of vision one might expect to be accompanied by the sounds of synthesized logic systems or, perhaps, robotic techno-rock. But the loose and easy, anarchically non - scientific rhythms of jazz? Hardly.

Nevertheless, jazz is what it was Sunday afternoon and evening, wafting across the building-block surfaces of the hotel as the Pacific Coast Jazz Festival took over the hotel's Catalina Room for its second annual Orange County outing.

The list of performers, hand-picked to the personal taste of festival producer Fred Norsworthy, made few concessions to contemporary trends. Ranging from Shorty Rogers and his Giants to Terry Gibbs, Alice Coltrane and Gerald Wilson, the program was a virtual family reunion between performers and audience who have had a long and mutually fruitful relationship. Amid the cool impersonality of the setting, it was a warm and non-threatening oasis of musical congeniality.

The Rogers and Gibbs groups revealed few surprises. Gibbs, in particular, has lost not a whit of the high-speed, perpetual-motion style that has been the hallmark of his vibes playing for more than 40 years.

Working with the superb pianist Alan Broadbent and the rhythm team of Andy Simpkins and Jerry Gibbs, the vibist spent most of his time, as usual, pursuing the phantom of be-bop remembered.

Ironically, the set's best moment was provided by Broadbent, during one of Gibbs' prototypical blues pieces. The New Zealand pianist, born around the time Gibbs was beginning his playing career, offered a beautifully relaxed linear improvisation that easily proved the point Gibbs had been straining so frenetically to make: Be-bop, like the Bird, indeed still lives.

The Harold Vick All-Star Quintet suffered the familiar malaise of all-star groups everywhere: lack of rehearsal. Trumpeter Jack Sheldon had one of his brassy nights, alternating piercing bell tones with flurries of musical mumbling, while the tall, magisterial-looking Vick never quite managed to get his robust tenor saxophone into high gear. Part of the problem undoubtedly was the failure of the rhythm team of Claude Williamson, Art Davis and Carl Burnett to find a part of the beat they could all agree upon.

Drummer Dick Berk's Jazz Adoption Agency had no such problems, and the interaction between Berk and the gifted bassist John Patitucci was easily the highlight of the festival. The other group members--Tad Weed, Mike Fahn, Jeff Bunnell and Dave Pozzi--were lesser known, but not lesser skilled. Their playing, individually and collectively, on a hard swinging version of "I Could Write A Book" was youthful, energetic and optimistic--all good omens for jazz.

Among the other participants, the ever-dependable Gerald Wilson conjured up his familiar big band magic, with a group that spotlighted the entertaining trumpet of Snooky Young and some virile tenor saxophone from Harold Land.

Equally fascinating, but in a far different manner, was Macaw, a band of African-oriented musicians and singers, whose highly visual, enormously energetic presentation never quite managed to disguise the fact that their music was far closer to pop than to jazz.

The program's emotional high point was provided by the appearance of Alice Coltrane with a group that featured the saxophone playing of two of John Coltrane's sons--Ravi and Oran.

Ravi, in particular, playing tenor and soprano saxophones, seemed to summon up past images, with a stance and a look that was eerily similar to that of his father.

It was an appropriate climax to a festival that was clearly focused on jazz tradition. In an environment so dedicated to the high-tech future, the Pacific Coast Jazz Festival was a welcome recognition of the continuing values of the past.

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