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JAZZ REVIEW : Page Cavanaugh Battles Noise at Money Tree

January 12, 1991|DON HECKMAN

Cocktail jazz has come on hard times in recent years. Singles bars, over-amplification and parodies by the likes of Bill Murray and Lily Tomlin have played havoc with the kind of laid-back but creatively intense musical atmosphere that once existed in places like New York City's Embers Club.

Pianist-singer Page Cavanaugh was one of the performers whose work--especially in the '50s--consisted of a persuasive mixture of classic songs, brisk improvising and supple, jazz-inflected vocals. Thursday night at the Money Tree in Toluca Lake, Cavanaugh (now 68) led a trio that did a remarkable job of preserving and maintaining many of those musical virtues.

The songs were almost all familiar: instrumental versions of "Don't Be That Way" and a string of Ellington tunes; soft-spoken, almost Chet Baker-like Cavanaugh vocals on "A Cottage for Sale," "Moonlight in Vermont" and "Here's That Rainy Day." Guitarist Al Viola (whom Cavanaugh has worked with, on and off, for nearly 50 years) did much of the soloing, playing long-limbed choruses that stretched and reached without ever losing touch with the melodies. Phil Mallory, on bass, offered a counter-role, sticking close to the basic harmonies, always providing an easy reference point.

The only thing missing was the briskly rhythmic, near-whisper ensemble singing that characterized the work of Cavanaugh's early trios. But the absence was more than compensated for by the crisp togetherness of musicians who seemed, almost intuitively, to anticipate each other's moves.

More problematic was the atmosphere in the Money Tree, which at times was noisy to the point of bedlam. Despite the fact that many members around the crowded bar were both enthusiastic about the music and familiar with Cavanaugh, the start of a new tune was a virtual signal for the clamor to rise.

Too bad. Cocktail jazz may not demand the attention of the Modern Jazz Quartet, but it needs, and deserves, some clear space to make its undeniably appealing impact.

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