SEAL BEACH — You may have recognized some of the tunes played by pianist Walter Norris at Spaghettini on Sunday, but you certainly never heard them played quite like this. Norris, in from Berlin for a series of California appearances, showed that he is an alchemist at the keyboard, turning the most common material into gold.
The chance to see one of the world's top-ranking pianists in such an intimate, though noisy, setting was rare indeed, enjoyed by a majority of those assembled in the restaurant's comfortable lounge.
There were those ignorant of who or what they were hearing, who insisted on trying loudly to talk about their ex-boyfriends or their real-estate holdings above the music. But those paying attention were rewarded with an improvisational display that was both smart and playful.
Despite the shrill chatter of the rude few, Norris seemed undistracted, though he did ask a photographer to wait and snap between sets to avoid the concentration-breaking assault of a flash. Once inside the music, Norris seemed to enter his own world as he rocked gently back and forth on the bench or bent down to the keys intent on some particularly sharply cut phrase or exchange with bassist Putter Smith.
In his hands, the most familiar melodies expand and mutate, evolving through a series of rhythmic and chordal changes that wander far afield from their composer's original intent.
No matter how deep the extent of the metamorphosis, Norris kept a sense of narrative flow, without hard corners or disjointed leaps. Though they could be as different as night and day, one passage followed another as certainly and as smoothly as the turning of the hands of a clock.
Often, a tune would turn into something entirely different, with only an intellectual or lyric connection tying the bits together. An example was "Willow Weep for Me," when Norris smoothly inserted the "all around the mulberry bush" line from "Pop Goes the Weasel." This kind of playful improvisation gave literal weight to the sonic experience, as Norris developed a number of these musical puns.
He opened Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays" in somber style, then continued that mood as he dropped in quotes from Eden Ahbez's melancholy "Nature Boy" as bassist Smith joined in.
"Georgia (On My Mind)" found him working with deeply felt blues lines before turning to a sprightly minuet-styled passage that evolved into an intense run of swirling lines in which right and left hands alternately worked in harmony and opposition. "Savoy" was given an upbeat treatment that gave Norris a chance to show off fleet, agile be-bop smarts.
Smith, lightly amplified against the unamplified piano, remained modestly in the background, providing spare support yet soloing with fine pitch and melodic warmth. His fast walk through "Savoy" was an ever-changing canvas of ideas as he ran neck and neck with the pianist.
When Norris returns for an encore performance tonight, Spaghettini's management might post an announcement regarding their honored performer (there was none on Sunday), alerting patrons to the momentous musical event the restaurant is hosting. Then there would be no excuse for rudeness--even unintentional--from the ill-informed.
* Walter Norris appears tonight with bassist Putter Smith at Spaghettini, 3005 Old Ranch Parkway, Seal Beach. 7 p.m. No cover. (310) 596-2199.