NEWPORT BEACH — Under most circumstances, bassist Max Bennett's contemporary jazz sextet wouldn't be thought of as a dance band. But that's exactly what the Maxx Band became Thursday night at Twin Palms, where it opened a three-night stand.
The evening began with Bennett's bouncy, not-a-care-in-the-world "High Society" and an empty dance floor. But Bennett's second number, "Walkin' Soft," a ballad written by the bassist just the day before, came at a tempo that brought a number of couples to the front of the bandstand for slow dancing. Once the ice was broken, the floor was crowded with dancers for the remainder of the set, no matter what tempo the band played.
That people found they could dance to Bennett's music says something about the tunes he writes. Based on accessible rhythms, the numbers still manage to be more ambitious than the usual fusion fare, with strong melodies that vary cleverly with time and chord changes.
Another thing that separates the Maxx Band from the usual contemporary combo is the quality of the players. Guitarist Brian Price, saxophonist Jeff Jorgenson, keyboardist Rob Whitlock and drummer Ray Brinker are all familiar with the Bennett songbook, having made appearances on the bassist's 1995 album "Great Expectations."
The only member of Bennett's combo who didn't play in those sessions, percussionist Eddie Drayton, fell seamlessly into the rhythmic mix with an array of sounds from bongos, congas, timbales and bells, shakers and other noisemakers.
Drayton's play accented the prevailing beat while adding rhythmic depth with a variety of counterpointed rhythms. His timbale-conga solo on "Long Road" was one of the evening's highlights.
The melodic content of Bennett's numbers and the changes he injects present soloists with an involved route to follow. Jorgenson, whether playing alto or tenor, brought a reserved style to his play as he suspended well-separated lines above the rhythmic brew. He used the electronic wind instrument, a synthesizer that's played much like a clarinet, to add flute-like tones to Bennett's driving "Long Road."
Price melded his sound with that of the bass when working rhythm duties, then soloed with swooping tones and mellow chords during "Walkin' Soft." Keyboardist Whitlock used a calliope-like sound to improvise on "Cool Breeze."
Bennett, as is often the case, did not solo during the first set. Instead, the bassist improvised as he supported, varying the riff with unexpected twists and adding short bursts of notes as accents. Unlike most electric bassists, Bennett doesn't go for a sharp, thumb-pounded sound. His tones are warm and full, establishing a strong base to support the front-line instruments.
The band switched gears mid-set when it brought up vocalist Amber Whitlock to sing "Just Friends," "Route 66" and the Bennett original "Reflections."
Whitlock, who has a pleasant, somewhat airy voice, added rhythmic interest to her delivery by waiting, at times, to deliver the odd phrase at just the last moment. The group played tightly behind her, with Jorgenson adding cool tenor on "Just Friends" and slightly more heated alto tones on "Reflections." The singer's appearance brought even more dancers out of the crowd.
* The Maxx Band, with bassist Max Bennett, plays tonight at Twin Palms, 630 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach. 10 p.m. No cover. (714) 721-8288.