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JAZZ REVIEW : Karukas and Trio Perform Musical High-Wire Act

January 17, 1994|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — A sense of drama is central to the music of keyboardist Gregg Karukas. Nearly every tune he and his backing trio played Saturday at Randell's contained passages in which soloists climbed from reserved, sometimes considered beginnings into strong, often stratospheric heights.

Just when this pattern of spiraling excitement became predictable, Karukas changed the pace, playing a solo number on acoustic piano, then leading the combo in a touching ballad with the relaxed feel of afterglow. This needed change of pace provided a break until Karukas picked up the tempo and embraced the dramatic once again.

Playing a long opening set of originals pulled primarily from his "Summerhouse" and "Sound of Emotion" albums, Karukas demonstrated an almost literate sense of plot development, letting things open slowly and accessibly while setting the groundwork for the agitation and entanglements to follow.

Most of the high tension was provided by saxophonist Boney James, who moved his improvisations easily past cozy, melodic statements into tough, sometimes frantic fits of expression.

The only tune in the set not composed by Karukas--Joe Zawinul's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy"--lent itself perfectly to this kind of foreplay and climax, and the band took full advantage.

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James, playing tenor, used "Mercy" to show some chops, working up fleet if sometimes repetitive lines detailed with soulful sounds. Karukas explored firm, rhythmic chording splashed with uneasy, atonal touches.

The number also gave bassist Bruce Atkinson a chance to step upfront. True to the band's chosen method of operation, he moved from deeply voiced, melodic passages into bright, finger-popped lines at his solo's close.

Other numbers handled with the same developmental strategy included "Severna Park," a mid-tempo funk exercise that saw Karukas coming out of his seat behind a pair of synthesizers as the dynamic ante increased, and "Thanks for the Reason," a gospel-tinged blues statement that featured James' tenor squeals at the height of his solo.

Though all of the tunes featured easily accessed rhythms and melodic hooks, the most ambitious of the lot was the title tune from "Summerhouse," with the minor-key feel of its bass introduction and the unexpected chord changes in Karukas' lead.

James added an easy, grooving tenor line before the keyboardist took over with his strongest improvisation, a gliding, beat-induced effort pitted with blue notes.

The change of pace came when Karukas moved to the acoustic grand to play a solo version of "Sound of Emotion." Though the keyboardist worked through the simple piece with authentic emotion, the slow-paced number came off dull and flat compared to the rest of the numbers.

From there, the band moved into another ballad, "Love on the Beach," constructed on an almost droning bass line and featuring James' touching, if not thoughtful, alto work.

That this is a working band--James, Atkinson and drummer Joel Taylor all make appearance on the "Summerhouse" album--was apparent from the tightness and polish of their presentation. Taylor was especially instrumental in this, bringing on-the-money timekeeping to the predictable rhythms while adding plenty of off-beat interest with cymbal embellishments and snare-drum accents.

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But Karukas, who has shown his versatility working behind Brazilian composer, guitarist and vocalist Dori Caymmi as well as singer Shelby Flint, needs to bring more variety to both his inevitable sense of dynamics and his rhythmic slant, something he did on "Moon Lit Breeze," a Brazilian-influenced number dedicated to Caymmi.

That he's a smart composer with a good ear for drama was apparent; that his approach can be predictably tedious over a period of time was also there to be heard.

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