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Billy Mitchell: A Man for All Seasons, Beats

November 07, 1994|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — As jazz music continues to stratify into tight little categories and bands look to specialize in their chosen style--be it swing, trad, be-bop, neo-bop, Latin, funk or fusion--it's refreshing to find a musician such as Billy Mitchell, who does it all.

The keyboardist's first set Saturday at Randell's covered all those bases in a good-time presentation that, at places, involved the audience with sing-along and finger-snapping chores. Though definitely an attempt to win over the dinner-hour crowd, these high jinks did little to obscure the fine musicianship coming from the pianist and his long-time associate, saxophonist John Bolivar.

The fact that Mitchell's regular bassist Hilliard Wilson and drummer Quentin Dennard were absent didn't seem to matter. Mitchell and Bolivar have worked together so long that their sounds seemed tied like light and shadow, one responding neatly to another. They pulled along replacements Ernest Tibbs on electric bass and Greg Brown on drums with strong leads and consistently predictable direction.

It didn't hurt the rhythm section's chances that the set consisted of familiar tunes and forms. But Mitchell doesn't just call out standards to be played in the same old way. He's arranged these classics to suit his style, adding inventive touches that required his bassist and drummer to pay close attention.

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The be-bop exercise "Cherokee" was framed by phrases from Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts." Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance" was done in funk time, while "On Green Dolphin Street" alternated between an earthy, world-beat tempo, which Bolivar decorated with toots blown on the detached head of his flute, and the more traditional walk time. Throw in a Latin number, a couple of blues, a ballad and a pop tune and you've got yourself a well-rounded program.

Though Mitchell had left at home the second synthesizer, the one he uses to fill his songs with strings, brass and other orchestral effects, he still took advantage of his primary electronic piano to induce appropriate sounds. On vibist Milt Jackson tune "Bag's Groove," Mitchell employed a vibraphone sound to bring authenticity to the number. A blues tune was introduced with sufficiently honky-tonk tones.

But his best moments came utilizing straight piano.

An engagingly rhythmic acoustic player, Mitchell applied those same percussive skills to his electric piano, building each solo dramatically with strong right-hand phrases and swelling chordal exchanges while decorating his work with trills, repeated figures and snappy glissandi. His unaccompanied introduction to "On Green Dolphin Street" was warm and supple, with only subtle hints of the beat-minded approach that was to follow.

The interplay between Mitchell and Bolivar shone on "My Funny Valentine," as the keyboardist dispersed punctuating chords behind the flutist's light-footed, dancing play. Mitchell's accompaniment thickened during more up-tempo numbers, being noticeably more dense during Bolivar's rousing alto sax improvisation on "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66."

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An untitled blues found both Mitchell and Bolivar at their best. The keyboardist's work had an almost vocal quality as he sang, cried and shouted on the piano, often leaving long, considered pauses for dramatic effect. Bolivar, showing another side of his utility, took up the tenor sax in an R & B-drenched outing that took on the soul-baring honesty of a confession. If the two have any one genre in which they excel over all others, certainly it's the blues.

Tibbs and Brown filled in admirably, though only Brown added anything to the date as a soloist. Tibbs' improvisation from "On Green Dolphin Street" was a predictable exercise while his thumb-popping funk during "Freedom Jazz Dance" was of the "heard it too many times before" school.

Brown, on the other hand, constructed an inspiring solo with his brushes during "Cherokee" while nailing down the funk on "Freedom Jazz Dance."

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