HUNTINGTON BEACH — They should name a river after Gary Foster. The alto saxophonist who played at the Kikuya Restaurant on Saturday as the guest of guitarist Doug MacDonald's trio has a natural, flowing style that's as wide and compelling as the Mississippi itself.
Which isn't to say that Foster plays riverboat Dixieland. He trades mainly in be-bop, bringing a free-floating improvisational style that reflects the influence of the Lennie Tristano school. Foster's a guy who's not afraid to gamble, though, even when working in unfamiliar circumstances as he was here. And the payoff was great.
A veteran of the big bands of Louie Bellson, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Clare Fischer, Foster has been among Los Angeles' elite session men from the time he moved to the city in 1961. Heard around town with combos led by Fischer, Jimmy Rowles, Warne Marsh and Laurindo Almeida, he also has recorded under his own name, notably the 1991 Concord label date "Make Your Own Fun," which included pianist Rowles and onetime Bill Evans drummer Joe Labarbera.
Though it was the first time he'd worked with guitarist MacDonald, it didn't take Foster long to fit right in. He joined the trio in an up-tempo rendition of "What Is This Thing Called Love?" stringing together bop-wise passages that would have done Charlie Parker proud, all played in clear, clean, bubbling tones.
His phrasing took the form of a question-and-answer session, with wily, inquisitive lines answered by shorter, declarative statements. He repeated nothing during his improvisation. Each idea was fresh and singular.
"Alone Together," played at a slower tempo, allowed him to develop ideas more thoroughly. Here, his phrasing was based on a three-part construction, with an even-tempered line stated in a narrow range from the middle register followed by an ascending line that was tagged with a contrasting, descending line. Blue notes and dissonant accents enlivened the formula in what turned out to be one of the first set's strongest moments.
Joined only by MacDonald for the opening of "Lover Man," Foster displayed a strong lyrical sense, emphasizing the tune's melancholy feel with a passionate yet reserved delivery. "I Thought About You" opened at a walk-paced tempo before moving into some upbeat swing during Foster's agile improvisation. During "Just Friends," Foster showed an uncanny ability to accent every other note he sounded, even during the fastest runs.
It also was an exceptional night for MacDonald, who seems to have turned up his volume from previous nights here. This resulted in a more direct, upfront delivery, with smart sets of chords balanced with fleet, single note runs.
The ever-dependable drummer Nick Martinis remained subtle and subdued through most of the evening until he broke out during a solo on "Just Friends." He developed smart patterns of snare, cymbal and tom-tom exchanges, working, at one point, against rapid-fire bass drum kicks that he embellished with sharp snare rolls. Even when paired with a guest artist like Foster, Martinis should be given more room on his own--that's when his true skills really shine.
Bassist Tim Powell was a newcomer to the trio and seemed to struggle at different times during the program. But Martinis' adept timekeeping, and fine accompaniment play from MacDonald, were all that was required to give Foster the forum he needed to perform in masterly fashion. This truly was a great night for sax fans.
Trumpeter Jack Sheldon, scheduled to perform at Kikuya on Saturday with the Doug MacDonald trio, has canceled, citing schedule conflicts. Instead, saxophonist-flutist-clarinetist Buddy Collette will join the trio. Information: (714) 536-6665.