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JAZZ REVIEW : Grusin Brothers Make Pasadena Fest a Family Affair

August 10, 1993|LEONARD FEATHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The third annual Pasadena Jazz Festival at the Ambassador Auditorium maintained the event's reputation for musical diversity. However, the well-attended event fell short of the high standards established last year.

This year's most notable initiative was a rare joint appearance by the Grusin brothers, Dave and Don, who closed the show Sunday evening. They were flanked by their frequent associates, Abraham Laboriel, on bass, and Harvey Mason on drums. The program touched all bases, from sophisticated funk to a quasi-calypso (fleshed out by a prerecorded track).

Both Grusins are skilled pianists. Dave played themes from his scores in "The Fabulous Baker Boys" and "The Firm," the latter a slow and stirring blues. Don contributed several intriguing originals. The two joined forces for a pair of Gershwin items. Throughout, Sal Marquez with his early Miles Davis trumpet and Eric Marienthal on various saxophones provided powerful support.

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This admirable set fell apart abruptly with the appearance of Phil Perry, one of those singers who make every sound falsetto. His three songs were about as appropriate in a jazz concert as anchovies on ice cream. Don Grusin introduced him as "my favorite singer." (Take that, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.)

Preceding the Grusin show was the festival's most welcome surprise, Ken Peplowski. Playing smoothly creative tenor sax and phenomenal clarinet, this New York musician was promptly revealed as an emerging star. In a hell-bent "Just One of Those Things," he showed that there are only a few degrees of separation between him and Eddie Daniels, the clarinet find of the 1980s. His ballad side was no less impressive in Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom."

The festival began on Saturday with an evening of Brazilian music, for which two composer-performers, Dori Caymmi and Ivan Lins, shared honors. Lins is an artist of such rare charisma that the language barrier didn't seem to matter, though it was pleasant to hear him lift the linguistic curtain by singing his own "Love Dance" in English.

Caymmi often seemed to be making his own brand of "scat-speranto" in a set that was sometimes dark and surreal. Both singers brought on guest artists. Kevyn Lettau, with her pleasantly reedy sound, dominated the Caymmi set. Brenda Russell brought the best jazz groove of the evening to a song she co-wrote, and performed with Lins.

The sold-out Sunday matinee opened with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Playing John Clayton's charts, the band fielded numerous brilliant soloists. Oscar Brashear, playing his own "Sashay, was a melodic delight. Rickey Woodard and Charles Owens on tenor saxes crossed horns for a "Flying Home" type piece. The only disappointment was Clayton himself: except for two brief bowed solos, he delegated the bass work to a sideman and confined himself to conducting, a bit too melodramatically. His co-leaders, brother Jeff Clayton on reeds and the spirited drummer Jeff Hamilton, were in fine form throughout.

What strikes the discerning listener about Diane Schuur, who followed the band, is the degree to which she squanders a splendid set of chops. Her attempts to sing the blues were pathetically contrived: for this listener she belongs to the "Oh, shut up" school of blues. In other songs, phrasing and expression were at a discount, her high notes grated, her scat lines in unison with her piano were perfunctory and dated.

Only in a few ballads ("You'll See," "Speak Low") did Schuur reveal her potential. Ironically, a couple of vocals by her keyboardist, Bill Cantos, had an unaffected honesty that Schuur rarely achieved.

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