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JAZZ REVIEW : Pianist Provides Constant in Shuffle of WoodWinds


NEWPORT BEACH — There were big shoes to fill at the Hyatt Newporter appearance of Frank Strazzeri's WoodWinds West quintet.

With the death of tenor saxophonist Bob Cooper last month, a gaping hole was left in the WoodWinds West lineup, not to mention the entire fabric of West Coast jazz. So it was fitting that Cooper, who was one of the most beloved musicians on the Southern California scene, would be replaced by colleague and friend Pete Christlieb.

But the equally sizable shoes of Christlieb, who was detained in Los Angeles, needed filling themselves, at least during Friday's first set. Enter journeyman saxophonist Ray Reed, a member of the Supersax ensemble, to fill in until Christlieb could arrive. The use of different musicians in each set made for some interesting comparisons.

The one constant during the performance was pianist Strazzeri's suave charts for the three woodwind players. Whether on one of his own tunes, such as "Strazzatonic" or standards such as "Long Ago and Far Away," Strazzeri imparted a bracing cool when harmonizing the three horns.

Most frequently, the blend consisted of Reed's (or Christlieb's) tenor, Bill Perkins' alto sax and Jack Nimitz's baritone. The pianist got an even smoother sound when the instrumentation was clarinet, Nimitz on bass clarinet and Perkins on flute, as it was on Tadd Dameron's "Soul Train."

As Strazzeri and company opened the first set with the be-bop paced "Long Ago and Far Away," one couldn't help but think of the Miles Davis-Gil Evans "Birth of the Cool" sessions. But the band moved quickly from the 1940s into something with a more modern feel, Strazzeri's "Frame of Mind," a thoughtful number that built on bassist Dave Stone's two-note foundation.

The keyboardist used the tune's light, dance figure to construct brief, stately phrases that he accented with understated left-hand chords. Reed skated through his tenor solo, seeming to rush ahead of the beat with little or no breaks. Nimitz bumped along insistently on baritone, conveying the image of a Jeep ride on 40 miles of rough road. After a honey-colored ensemble passage, Perkins, his glasses resting halfway down his nose, his face carrying the wide-eyed slyness of a grown-up Dennis the Menace, pushed his alto through one of his typically enthusiastic yet mischievous improvisations.

Strazzeri's tribute to Sal Nestico, "One for Sal," was the most representative of his writing style. The light, airy figure, which glided along on drummer Paul Kreibich's cymbal ride, gave way to another devilish effort from Perkins, this time on soprano. Reed again pedaled through his solo with nary a break while Strazzeri broke from his usually conservatism to spoon up rich left hand chords to support his singing right hand.

With Christlieb replacing Reed in the second set, the ensemble passages took on a more comfortable feel as the tenor man seemed to shape his sound to mesh with Nimitz and Perkins.

On "Just for Now," Christlieb seemed to sculpt the individual tones, making them harder or softer as he progressed. He worked in a more unrushed style than Reed, and had more to say. Particularly impressive on Strazzeri's "This Way Out," Christlieb showed he has absorbed the lessons of both Charlie Parker and John Coltrane in a way that still allows him his own voice.

The Spanish mood of Strazzeri's "Warm Valencia Nights" made for sultry leads from Nimitz's bass clarinet and Perkins' flute. Perkins the composer was represented with "Opals," a bright little number that featured its composer's glossy soprano tones.

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