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JAZZ REVIEWS : Singers Warm to Spotlight at Jazz Festival

August 08, 1994|DON HECKMAN

Improvisation may be at the heart of jazz, but the blues is in its soul--a fact convincingly demonstrated Saturday night in the opening session of the two-day Pasadena Jazz Festival at the Ambassador Auditorium.

Wisely, the program did not cast its net too far in the direction of pure blues, sticking instead with acts--Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham, Hank Crawford, Jimmy Smith and Marlena Shaw--whose music is both blues-based and jazz-expansive.

Headliner Smith's organ style has become so classic, and its foot-tapping, rhythmic drive so familiar, that he changes it only in the smallest increments--an extended run here, a double-time riff there. But this was not one of his better outings.

The late-starting program delayed Smith's arrival until nearly 11 p.m., and he was clearly unhappy with recurring technical problems. After playing a few tunes that confirmed his continuing mastery of the style, and providing powerful support for Shaw's vocals, he closed with a repetitious sequence of groove-tinged hits.

As it turned out, it was the singers who actually commanded much of the evening. Jeannie Cheatham picked some choice items: "In the Dark," "Ain't Nobody's Business" and Percy Mayfield's plaintive "Please Send Me Someone to Love." She sang them with a sound that alternately was darkly insinuating and brashly declamatory, a superb example of how a gifted performer can tap into the enduring life of the blues.

Shaw's more extroverted approach was no less compelling. At her best, as she was on "Is You Is, or Is You Ain't," she combined the soaring sensuality of Sarah Vaughan with the precisely articulated swing of Carmen McRae.

The horn players also had their moments. Crawford's highly dramatic alto saxophone, the foundation for many young contemporary horn men, was not in peak form, his soloing dimmed, perhaps, by the need to fit into the well-integrated sound of the Cheathams' Sweet Baby Blues Band.

Tenor saxophonists Rickey Woodard and Herman Riley (sidemen with, respectively, Cheatham and Smith) more than filled in the gaps, however, in a series of brash, hard-driving choruses. And on "Ain't Nobody's Business," Woodard added a brilliant clarinet solo resonating with echoes of Barney Bigard--a perfect illustration of the undying love affair between jazz and the blues.

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