IRVINE--The audience was bigger. The musicians were more relaxed, looser on stage. Best of all, a number of performances were outstanding, the kind of stirring efforts that touch the heart, the head and the soul.
Everything was better on Sunday, the third day of the West Coast Jazz Party in the ballroom of the Irvine Marriott. Friday's performances had been gentlemanly, collaborative efforts in which no individual stood apart from the others. Sunday's jam sessions were rousing affairs; individual ambitions and collective daring made for truly great moments of improvisational music.
Some 20 musicians joined forces in the mix-and-match jams. Most of the performers had played the first two days of the festival; it made sense that the more time they spent together, the more comfortable they would seem with each other. Some of the designated group leaders even had taken the time to introduce music other than familiar standards to their sets, as did Pete Christlieb with Al Cohn's "Triissimo" and Ron Eschete with Wes Montgomery's "The Thumb."
In any case, there was plenty of playful banter between tunes, and moments where the spontaneous nature of the music made for some laughs. Front-line horn players could be seen pointing at one another, trying to decide who would take the next solo. Improvs would go on for additional measures because a musician was too engaged in his work to see the cutoff sign.
Still, most of the kidding around came from the headliners, vibist Terry Gibbs' Dream Band, the only standing, rehearsed group on Sunday's bill. The 16-piece ensemble put on powerhouse performances of arrangements from Bill Holman, Med Flory and the late Marty Paich. Between tunes, the band members teased Gibbs and each other, with the leader (who made a running gag out of selling his CDs) playing the role of reluctant disciplinarian.
Saxophonist Flory's rambling alto sounds contrasted with fellow alto player Danny House's more direct approach during Paich's "Opus Number One." Tenor man Christlieb churned up the water during "Avalon," punctuating his attack with high-pitched cries and growling overtones. Clarinetist Buddy DeFranco joined the band for "Autumn Leaves" and his unaccompanied duet with Gibbs was a tightly stitched tapestry of sound. Trumpeter Jack Sheldon sang "That Old Black Magic" in his phrase-wise, irreverent style.
Gibbs, though difficult to hear at times against the roar of his orchestra, played with speed, insistence and wonderfully melodic intent. His duo with guest vibist Emil Richards found the two ducking under each other's arms while trying to play the same instrument, an act that brought still more laughs from the crowd.
The party atmosphere of Gibbs' set, sandwiched between equally loose jam sessions, fit the tone of the evening nicely. But not everything was fun and games. There was a host of fine performances during the five jams, and some made lasting impressions.
Saxophonist Christlieb, trumpeter Conte Candoli (seemingly recovered fully from open-heart surgery earlier this year) and pianist Roger Kellaway combined for beautifully contrasted solo efforts throughout their first set. Kellaway was particularly moving, either soloing or in accompaniment. He made each of his improvisations unique with dissonant touches, bluesy outbursts and unexpected references to other compositions.
Guitarist Eschete brought back fellow guitarist George Van Eps (whom he called the "Abraham Lincoln" of the guitar) and along with trumpeter Stacy Rowles, bassist Luther Hughes and drummer Jake Hanna, they explored the harmonics of such tunes as "I Love You." Van Eps' solo piece, "Embraceable You," unfolded like a drive down an unfamiliar road, with surprises awaiting at every turn.
The crowd's favorite turned out to be pianist Paul Smith whose lush, playful ways at the keyboard generated laughs and comparisons to Victor Borge. Smith constructed endless variations on the themes he played, at one point turning "Over the Rainbow" into a sprightly toe-dance. He has a way of rolling left-hand accompaniment that brings weight to his sound and makes the themes, played with the right hand, all the more substantial. His hilarious medley of cartoon and silent-movie music was the night's comical high point.
But the night's musical high point came after midnight, when drummer Grady Tate came to the stage without his sticks to sing. His mellow low register and crying high notes gave extra poignancy to the lyric of "It Might as Well Be Spring" and brought Joe Williams to mind during a blues medley that included "All Blues" and "Everyday I Have the Blues." It was the perfect after-hours close to a truly great night of partying.
The West Coast Jazz Party was scheduled to close Monday with a five-hour schedule of jam sessions.