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Jazz Review : Almario, Laboriel Have a Little Too Much Fun


SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Bassist Abraham Laboriel and saxophonist Justo Almario have a history together. Friends since their days about 25 years ago at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, they have continued their musical relationship, appearing on each other's albums and at club and concert dates.

So when they come together in a group using both their names, as they did Saturday at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, one expects a feel-good, family affair. And that's exactly what one got. But sometimes the upbeat mood got in the way of the music.

Though there were many fine moments during the early show, the abundance of happy-faced, major-key themes and audience-participation numbers tended to distract from the serious business of making music.

In fairness, Almario and Laboriel are known for their celebratory spirit. Their latest recording together, "Justo Almario-Abraham Laboriel," is a collection of upbeat religious numbers without a bit of minor-key moodiness--a program that becomes tedious in its nonstop joyful feel. With only a few exceptions, Saturday's show carried much the same mood.

With keyboardist Rique Pantoja (substituting for an ailing Greg Mathieson) and drummer Bill Maxwell, Almario and Laboriel let the good times roll. Songs, including Almario's "Street Sax" and Laboriel's "Exchange," were played with plenty of life and smiles all around.

The feeling, however, quickly grew thin. And the frequent attempts to include the audience in the music-making put a damper on the flow.

Still, with more ambitious material, the group came alive. Almario's "Casa Verde" moved through a number of rhythmic and emotional changes, challenging the musicians to take a harder look at what they were playing.

Pantoja floated mysterious chords behind Almario's probing soprano until Laboriel jumped into a fast walk rhythm and the saxophone took to the sky. When the descending-line theme resurfaced at the end of the piece, it was delivered with a snap that had been missing from the first go-round.

Almario acquitted himself well on tenor, soprano and flute. He was especially lively on flute during his own "Luz de Mi Camino." His tenor work, sometimes reflecting the emotional delivery of John Coltrane, was full of lyrical expression.

Laboriel made an impression with solid electric-bass support and with solos played in a higher register with an almost guitar-like quality. He favored the hot-and-bothered approach as he proceeded, jumping and huffing while he finger-picked and then thumb-pounded his way through "Exchange."

On that song, the two called on another friend from their Berklee days, keyboardist Frank Zottoli, to replace Pantoja. But Zottoli's contribution was limited to accompaniment as he was overwhelmed by the strength of Laboriel's bass.

Better was the guest solo number from keyboard player Marcos Ariel, yet another longtime Almario-Laboriel crony. Ariel's shifting, two-chord improvisation was the most involved and most emotionally rewarding of the evening.

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