You're about to bite into your burrito when the keyboardist sitting in with the cantina's house band grabs your attention with a rhythmic flourish. Looking up, you realize it's the guy with the hit fusion album who's been playing all the big-ticket concert venues, and he's just inches from your refritos.
Or your excitement at seeing one of jazz's best known vocalists in the intimate confines of a 150-seat supper club is more than justified. Before the first set, the singer walks around the room and gabs with each table, including yours, about the recording of "Let Me Off Uptown" or her days with Stan Kenton's orchestra. Later, when she sings, it seems only for you.
Or, you're enjoying Sunday brunch when you realize the bearded fluegelhorn player blowing warmly on the bandstand is that character from the Lighthouse All Stars who wrote music for "The Wild One" and "The Man With the Golden Arm." And the pianist in the group, playing the leader's originals from music spread out above the keys, sounds a lot like the late Bill Evans. Who can he be?
Yes, there's jazz to be had, up close and intimate, in Orange County. All of these examples --David Benoit's jam session appearance with the Luther Hughes Trio at El Matador in Huntington Harbour, Anita O'Day's cozy appearance at the Cafe Lido in Newport Beach, Shorty Rogers' Sunday afternoon concert with keyboardist Les Czimber at Gustaf Anders in Santa Ana--and a host of others just as enticing, happened here just last year.
Though the area lacks a showcase jazz room, like Catalina Bar & Grill in Los Angeles or Elario's in San Diego, where big-name, East Coast-based performers make appearances lasting several days, the scene here is far from dull. On any given weekend, performances ranging from quiet vocal sessions to searing fusion outings can be found in a handful of clubs and restaurants scattered around the county. And the talent is consistently high. The area's proximity to the studios and recording industry in Los Angeles assures a constant supply of quality performers.
"That's a real advantage," says Luther Hughes, bassist, host of KLON-FM's program "Jazz Today" and leader of the house band at the El Matador restaurant in Huntington Harbour. Hughes, who plays Thursdays through Saturdays at the restaurant, has been booking his buddies from the music business, most of whom have recording contracts, to jam with his trio since last May. "There's a wealth of talent to pull from in Southern California. We've had players like Stix Hooper, Wilton Felder, Russell Ferrante (keyboardist with the Yellowjackets), Justo Almario and Terry Trotter (Larry Carlton's keyboardist) come here to sit in with us. You wouldn't find this caliber of musician in just any part of the country."
Hughes was skeptical when he first heard that the Mexican restaurant was interested in booking jazz. "I thought, geez, it's probably some old guy who wants Glenn Miller music."
But as it turned out, George Gallardo, who along with his father Marcial, owns and operates El Matador, had musical tastes similar to Hughes. "I'm a big David Sanborn fan," Gallardo says, "and I like Spyro Gyra quite a bit. But I also like Ella Fitzgerald and I greatly admired Sarah Vaughn."
The resulting partnership has created one of the more interesting venues around. "It's been a pleasant surprise," Gallardo says. "Luther's been bringing in some great talent. It's really helped the business."
In a realm where clubs open and close without much notice, the Studio Cafe on the Balboa Peninsula is practically a relic. Chiz Harris, a drummer who has worked with Harry James, Les Brown and Lou Rawls, has held down the Saturday night spot there for 17 years. GRP recording artist and Orange County resident Eric Marienthal, best known for his continuing association with Chick Corea, started there as a relative unknown eight years ago and still plays the Wednesday night slot when he's not on the road.
"It's been great," Marienthal says. "You have to give the management credit. They're pretty much responsible for keeping jazz alive in Orange County. They never dictated what we could do--they just let us play."
There were fears that the music policy at the Studio would change when new ownership took over last July. "I was in Europe when it happened," Marienthal relates, "and I kind of wondered what would happen. Happily, I found out that he (new owner, Albert Chammas, wasn't changing a thing."
Not far away, Joe Sperranza, owner of the Cafe Lido, one of the few clubs that features music seven nights a week, is also playing the longevity game. With 2 1/2 years at its present location and another seven around the corner at 29th Street and Newport Boulevard, the Lido has beaten the odds.