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JAZZ REVIEW : The Contrasts Surprise at L.B. Fest


Of two minds? Or open-minded? Any way you look at it, the Long Beach Jazz Festival's mating of pop music and jazz Friday and Saturday wasn't suited for purists of either genre. But for fans who like diversity, the festival, held in the outdoor Rainbow Lagoon Park next to the Long Beach Arena, offered a number of fine musical moments as well as some surprising contrasts.

Friday night's opening session, which began nearly two hours behind schedule, set the tone for Saturday's daylong marathon of juxtaposition, matching mainstream sax man Stanley Turrentine and his combo against vocalist Randy Crawford's backbeat and ballad set. In a bit of Friday the 13th luck, opening act Gil Scott-Heron was a no-show due to the late arrival of his plane into Los Angeles.

Working with a crack quartet that included pianist Kei Akagi and bassist Charles Frambough, Turrentine put his robust tenor tones to such standards as Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" and John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." Also aired were R&B-flavored numbers from the Turrentine repertoire--"Sugar" and "Don't Mess With Mr. T."

Throughout, Turrentine played with a disarming confidence and an engaging mix of phrases, some warm and thoughtful, others intensely hot and assertive. Keyboardist Akagi countered these strengths with richly constructed improvisations that held occasional flashes of dissonance and rhythmic rebelliousness.

Crawford, noting that she hadn't played in Los Angeles for some time, turned in a reliable set of tunes from her late-'70s to early '80s heydays. The singer's voice continues to be well-pitched and sweetly toned, and both qualities were strikingly apparent during an impromptu, a capella rendition of "Ode to Billy Joe."

But the vocalist's material, nearly all mid-tempo ballads, carried a certain sameness, and it wasn't until her signature tune, "Street-life," that her performance was given a needed burst of energy. Her set also included a heartfelt rendition of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" and John Lennon's "Imagine."

The same kind of contrasts continued on Saturday, highlighted by the two closing acts: trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and singer Chaka Khan. Hubbard, who has developed a reputation for hot and cold performances, turned in one of his coldest. Seemingly unable to create much of a tone on fluegelhorn--his luck was only slightly better on trumpet during Herbie Hancock's "Eye of the Hurricane"--he left the stage during the third number, a move that brought his biggest ovation.

More's the pity, because Hubbard had assembled a strong quartet to back him--saxophonist Bennie Maupin, pianist John Beasley, bassist Jeff Littleton and drummer Sonship Theus. Before Hubbard prematurely ended the set, the foursome turned in strong performances on "Hurricane" and Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island," led by Beasley's stimulating keyboard work. (After the performance the pianist explained that Hubbard had been struggling with a split lip.)

Although she has a somewhat eclectic reputation, Khan and her eight-piece band delivered a mainly funk-driven set full of the mood shifts and vocal fireworks for which she is known. The exception was her highly stylized reading of George Gershwin's "Summertime," with an arrangement that borrowed heavily from the Gil Evans-Miles Davis working of the standard. With a more direct approach to the lyric, Khan could make something out of the tune.

The singer's set was marred by over-amplification of bass and bass drum, which served, at times, to obscure her voice. The same kind of problem existed both days when acoustic groups played. The bass and bass drum were very loud in the mix, something appropriate to most pop music, but a practice that tended to bury the horns and vocalists.

Also on Saturday, pianist Patrice Rushen and drummer Ndugu Chancler, both best known for their crossover efforts, led a mostly acoustic quartet (Neil Stubenhaus played electric bass) in contemporary, yet out-of-the-tradition, pieces that featured impassioned saxophone work from Justo Almario.

The Yellowjackets showed why it's the thinking-person's fusion band, combining strong rhythms, synthesizer color and strong improvisations from all four members: keyboardist Russell Ferrante, bassist Jimmy Haslip, drummer William Kennedy and saxophonist Bob Mintzer. The group's tributes to Miles Davis ("Dewey") and Art Blakey ("Out of Town") were two of the day's standouts. The soulless funk of keyboardist Jeff Lorber and his band stood in sharp contrast.

An all-star band of saxophonist Teddy Edwards, pianist Art Hillary, bassist Richard Simon and drummer Sherman Ferguson with singers Ernie Andrews and Lorez Alexander gave the day's most mainstream performance, but again, the meat of Edward's rich tenor sound was lost in the mix. The strongest vocal effort over both days came from Barbara Morrison, whose strong way with blues and ballads was something of which the festival could have used more.

The festival continued Sunday.

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