For 10 years, North County jazz buffs have had the opportunity to spend their Sunday evenings at the Fish House West in Cardiff, listening to saxophonist Tony Ortega and any number of top local players who drop in to jam.
The impromptu weekly sessions, held each year in the spring and summer, will continue through September or October this year.
This year Ortega's wife, Mona Orbeck, has come out of retirement to contribute some fine work on vibes.
In the restaurant's tiny bar, patrons relax to the music from 6 to 10 as the sun sets. Situated on Highway 101, the bar has a view of breaking waves and the surfers who ride them until dark. The bar's decor is rustic, with wood paneling and a peeled log ceiling. A shark swims in mid air above a tank full of live lobsters by the entry.
The casual mood can lead to incredible music, and, occasionally, to less-than-perfect solos from amateurs who sit in to learn a trick or two from Ortega. This year, the band includes Bob Deputy on drums, Dean Davidson on bass and Shep Meyers on piano.
"It's hard to get gigs for this kind of jazz," lamented Ortega, who prefers straight-ahead jazz, the music of the 1940s, '50s and '60s. "Nowadays it's mostly fusion," he added, referring to the electric jazz-pop that seems to dominate San Diego radio stations and clubs.
A typical set from Ortega, Orbeck & Co. might include a classic '50s tune like "So What" by trumpeter Miles Davis, pianist Thelonious Monk's " 'Round Midnight" and a few American pop standards like "Autumn Leaves," all chosen because they provide a good basis for the warm, melodic improvisations the musicians offer as they take their turns soloing.
After all these years, Ortega has a small but loyal following.
"A lot of people here are real fans. They come back time after time," he said. "One guy drives down from Hemet. A few weeks ago, we played in Palm Springs, and he came over and checked into the hotel for two nights just to hear us. After that, he drove down to the Fish House on Sunday."
Ortega keeps a low profile, but he has world-class experience, having played with Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, Chico Hamilton, Gerald Wilson, Quincy Jones, Nelson Riddle and Percy Faith.
Most people have heard him, although they probably don't know it: he contributed saxophone to sound tracks for such movies as "An Unmarried Woman," "Bad Boys" and "Gloria."
Both Ortega and Orbeck play with the San Diego-based Benny Hollman Big Band, primarily at private parties.
Ortega seems content with his career and life, although he wouldn't mind recording a new album some day. His last albums were the 1978 "Rain Dance," including Orbeck on vibes, and "Adelanto," with Orbeck on piano, from the early 1970s.
Although Ortega plays other local venues, he has a special love for the Fish House jams, which attract such local players as Gary LeFebvre, Ivar Antonsen, Chris Conner, Jaime Valle and George Kazez.
"I like the freedom," he said. "There are no set rules. Also, how the audience responds has a lot to do with the performance. If the place is dead, you don't have much incentive, but if the response is good, the adrenalin starts flowing. Sometimes, I guess, some of my best playing has been there."
Where: Fish House West, 2633 S. Highway 101
Who: Saxophonist Tony Ortega and other jazz musicians
When: Sundays, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Cost: No cover charge