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JAZZ REVIEW : Saxophonist St. Marseille Finds His Own Tone

January 22, 1992|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DANA POINT — Saxophonist Dan St. Marseille makes jazz unpretentiously. In fact, you might say the 29-year-old resident of Orange simply stands and delivers.

Leading a first-rate quintet at the Old Dana Point Cafe, St. Marseille employed good taste, calling choice tunes, and on these selections offering a series of superior improvisations in the be-bop and post be-bop traditions. Performances by St. Marseille and his cohorts communicated beauty, grace and passion in a remarkably subtle and understated fashion.

The acid test for saxophonists is the singularity of the sound they coax from their instruments. On tenor saxophone, St. Marseille, while revealing evidence last Sunday that he's paid attention to the greats, from Stan Getz and Hank Mobley to John Coltrane and Ralph Moore, definitely has a tone of his own.

That pleasingly breathy tone is nicely centered, is full yet airy and floating, and it is luminescent, recalling the glow of a Chardonnay held to the light.

On two tunes, he also played soprano sax. Here, his distinctive singing sound was a mixture of the gentler aspect of Coltrane's often raw soprano tone, and the dancing, elfish utterances of Lucky Thompson.

St. Marseille and his band--Larry Gillespie, trumpet, fluegelhorn and vocals; Gerard Hagen, piano; Ernie Nunez, bass, and Denny Dennis, drums--worked with verve in the modern mainstream realm, offering a good deal of variety within that acoustic, propulsive framework.

The numbers ranged from "Fried Bananas" to saxophonist Dexter Gordon's flavorful reworking of the Jimmy Van Heusen standard, "It Could Happen to You," and "Lazybird," Coltrane's spiffy original from the classic 1957 Blue Note recording session "Blue Train."

Gillespie added two vocals--"Imagination" and "Tangerine"--in a laid-back, soft-voiced style that recalled the late trumpeter-singer Chet Baker.

The opening "Fried," taken at a foot-tapping medium tempo, demonstrated St. Marseille's appealing approach. The leader--who wore a blue sport coat and black slacks and T-shirt--planted himself in front of the microphone and improvised, building his solos around a zesty melodisms. Everything he played came out songlike, and a spiffy rhythmic concept enabled him to be fluid and yet maintain a buoyant-time feel.

Stating his ideas unhurriedly, St. Marseille mixed it up, going from ideas that seemed to twirl in place and those that bounded up the horn--and bounded right back down--to catchy, brief statements (like the same note repeated three times) or longer, more dense thoughts. He played everything with crisp articulation--he could stop on a dime, then roar right off again--so that one could always discern what he was playing.

The empathetic, resilient accompaniment supplied by Hagen, Nunez and Dennis made St. Marseille's job easier. Also, the pianist and the bassist soloed with quiet resourcefulness, Hagen sometimes championing a block-chord style that was reminiscent of Red Garland, Nunez emitting a rich tone and tasty, horn-like ideas.

Gillespie proved to be an able foil. His tone was also personal, showing traces of Clifford Brown's expansive warmth and Dizzy Gillespie's crackle, and his lines were just as fluid and listenable as St. Marseille's. He embellished diminutive thoughts, often by surrounding a single note with two or three quickly played nearby others, so that the single note became a sparkling cluster. He then tied these concoctions one to another, creating chains of ringing musical conversation.

Gillespie's vocal version of the pensive "Imagination," also from the Van Heusen songbook, was decidedly moving. His dusky, cloudy voice and his manner of here and there stretching out a word, building moments of almost excruciating tension, led to an emotional reading of the song's haunting, evocative lyrics.

St. Marseille--who has played behind Cab Calloway and Toni Tennille but is now breaking out as a leader--has the musical potential to become a major force in mainstream jazz. He and his quintet return to the Old Dana Point Cafe on Sunday.

Dan St. Marseille's quintet plays Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Old Dana Point Cafe, 24720 Del Prado, Dana Point. Admission: free; $4 minimum. Information: (714) 661-6003. The group also plays Thursday and Friday at the Grand Avenue Bar of the Biltmore Hotel, 515 S. Olive St., Los Angeles. Admission: free. Information: (213) 624-1011.

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