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MUSIC : Swinging in Style : Singer-pianist Betty Bryant performs easy-listening tunes--but she lives for vibrant jazz.

April 29, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times.

BURBANK — Betty Bryant leads two musical lives.

On her regular Wednesday-through-Friday engagement at Bob Burns res taurant in Santa Monica, or her occa sional one-nighters at eateries such as 72 Market Street in Venice, veteran L.A. musician Bryant works unaccompanied or with a bassist, and her performances could be called "background music."

But then there are the late-night sets Fridays at Bob Burns, when Bryant is joined by bassist Larry Gales, or the every-now-and-then engagements at rooms such as Chadney's in Burbank, where Bryant leads a quartet on Thursdays. There she can dig into her vibrant jazz style and feel completely at home.

"I'm more me there. I'm more about jazz," she says. "I can get right into it. It's so hard to give a definition of a club, but, for me, Chadney's is more energy-generating. Even a ballad there can have a lot of energy."

Not that her slower songs lacked spark on a recent Saturday at 72 Market Street, where diners chatted and ate as she played, paying her scant attention. Bryant, in a flowing orange-and-red caftan, her medium-length brown hair pulled back to reveal her fine features, delivered a dulcet-toned "Willow Weep for Me," a quietly graceful "Some Other Time" and a subtly driving "Have You Met Miss Jones?"--each rendition enlivened by spiffy execution and an understated be-bop muscularity that gave the small room added warmth and personality.

But Bryant couldn't sing at 72 Market, or swing hard there, for that matter--and those are two things she loves to do, and does with aplomb when she plays the Burbank establishment.

"Swinging--I guess it's all in the word," says Bryant. "It's a happy, joyous feeling. And singing. I have fun with all kinds of tunes. I like to go to extremes, from a funky version of " 'Lil Darlin' " to a sultry ballad or torch song. It's always been that way."

There's obviously a charisma about Bryant's vocalizing. Dennis Duke, who books Chadney's, says, "She can put a lot of emotion into a rendition without detracting from the lyric. She flirts with a tune's words, but she doesn't get cute." Times reviewer Bill Kohlhaase, writing about a Bryant show in San Juan Capistrano, agrees. Bryant, he says, sings "like she means it, without an over-reliance on stylistic tricks or gimmicks."

Asked to describe her piano style, Bryant says, "Before they had easy-listening stations, I called myself an easy-listening pianist. Lilting, like John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, or Bill Evans. Easygoing. I never play so driving that you get nervous."

But Bryant can cook solidly, even if she didn't always, says fellow pianist Gerald Wiggins. "She used to tap the keys, tap, tap, tap," he says. "Now she's got confidence. She digs in and plays her tail off."

Bryant admits she used to be "more timid" pianistically, a characteristic she feels came from working in Southern California as a single, where she was expected to stay in the background.

At Chadney's, Bryant's foursome will include sax man Rob Kyle, drummer Don Moffat and bassist Larry Gales. She appears with Gales on Fridays at Bob Burns and says that when Duke arranged for them to work together a while back, he started a sound musical friendship.

Bryant, born in Kansas City and a resident of Los Angeles since 1955, studied playing classical piano from the age of 4 until she was 12 in her hometown, then shifted to art in college at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan. It was there, while she worked as a psychiatric secretary at the Menninger Foundation by day, that her performing career began. "I was put on the radio, singing and playing piano, because this station director thought I had a sexy voice, which was something I had never thought about at the time," she says, laughing.

But when she went back to Kansas City, she started performing in clubs full-time, and she hasn't stopped. "I can't imagine doing anything else now," she says. "It's a wonderful thing to be able to do what you want to do."

WHERE AND WHEN

* What: Betty Bryant's quartet.

* Location: Chadney's, 3000 W. Olive St., Burbank.

* Hours: 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday.

* Price: No cover, no minimum.

* Call: (818) 843-5333.

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