HUNTINGTON BEACH — There was a late arrival to Dr. Art Davis' appearance at El Matador on Thursday. No, it wasn't the bassist or any other member of his trio; the missing component was Davis' amplifier.
As unusual as it was to hear an upright bassist perform at a venue where electric bass is the instrument of choice, it was even more unlikely that Davis would lead his combo during its first set without amplification for his acoustic bass. Not many would be able to pull it off.
But Davis did. Though his volume was understated, the bassist put on a show of technical facility and melodic beauty during a pair of standards and three of his own tunes. Not every subtle nuance of his performance, especially the rapid-fire statements he dispensed from the upper register, could be heard at the back of the room. Still, it was a gutsy display of skill and confidence that brought ovations from an especially attentive crowd. And when the amplifier did arrive in time for the second set, the good doctor was ready to cook.
Equally impressive in this quieter context was drummer Larance Marable, a longtime Los Angeles resident whose skills were polished about 40 years ago on the city's Central Avenue scene with such musicians as Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray and Hampton Hawes.
Marable, who has been heard more recently with Charlie Haden's Quartet West and the Shorty Rogers-Bud Shank-led revival of the Lighthouse All Stars, showed a painter's skills with his brushes and mallets, pulling a variety of colors from his modest setup. Striding forward for his solo spots, the drummer unleashed a torrent of constantly changing patterns without losing sight of a tune's rhythmic underpinnings. Then, like a good storyteller tying up loose ends, he faded gently back into appropriate trio volume.
Odd person out in the threesome was keyboardist Cecilia Coleman. Though receiving recognition for her expressive work on acoustic piano with saxophonist Benn Clatworthy's quartet and her own trios, Coleman seemed uncomfortable at her electronic instrument, playing tentatively during group passages in an attempt not to overshadow the bass. Her own solo spots were warm and satisfying, yet one couldn't help feeling that her technique was muzzled by the synthesizer's limitations--another good reason El Matador should add a \o7 real\f7 piano to its bandstand.
Davis' fellow Orange Coast College instructor, guitarist Dave Murdy, sat in during the second set, adding depth and interest to the proceedings with clean lines and inventive improvisational excursions. With Peggy Duquesnel substituting for Coleman, the quartet re-created the medley of Wes Montgomery's "The Thumb" and Davis' "Art's Boogie" that's heard on Murdy's recent release, "That Goes to Show Ya!" The group steamed through Charlie Parker's "Confirmation," with Marable, who worked with Parker during one of the saxophonist's Los Angeles stints, churning things up with adventurous cymbal play.
But this was Davis' gig--his chance to shine. He put on a strong, assertive walk in support of his combo members during "Blue Bossa." During improvs, he quoted from a variety of tunes ranging from "The Grand Canyon Suite" to the "Put another nickel in, in the nickelodeon" phrase from "Music, Music, Music." On "Stella by Starlight," he disguised the familiar theme with lyrical lines of his own invention, not stating the theme until the very end.
Though the bassist has a long list of credits that stretch back to recordings of Max Roach and John Coltrane, not to mention appearances with a number of symphony orchestras, he's seldom on view here in Orange County, where he makes his home. But after Thursday's show it was clear that Art Davis deserves to be heard more frequently--with or without amplification.