The Orange County jazz scene, encompassing various clubs, restaurants, college auditoriums, outdoor festival sites, hotel ballrooms and the O.C. Performing Arts Center, was a varied lot in 1996. The year was packed with dates from fine, Southern California-based artists as well as a good number (though not nearly enough) of internationally known figures playing the larger venues.
The most promising trend was the growing number of places where jazz is played. An honest-to-goodness jazz club, not just some restaurant offering music as a side dish, rose to prominence (Steamers Cafe in Fullerton). The Costa Mesa arts center, in an attempt to bring a sense of intimacy to its presentations, outfitted the small (299-seat), acoustically friendly Founders Hall with tables and drink servers, just like a real club.
Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton presented a promising jazz series, under the auspices of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, for the first time. All these locations rank among the very best places to hear music in the county.
On the negative side, the area's larger, commercial venues (the Coach House, the Galaxy, Irvine Meadows) presented fewer jazz events than in the past. It probably reflects the dwindling audience for jazz fusion and the sort of crossover acts that used to do so well at these venues.
Sad testament to that fact was the meager turnout at Irvine Meadows on Sept. 14 for a mixed bill featuring Strunz and Farah, Michael Franks, Hiroshima and Tom Scott. The empty seats far outnumbered those occupied.
Top Performances 1. Terence Blanchard, Founders Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa (Nov. 1). Trumpeter and film composer Blanchard was a wise choice to inaugurate the Jazz Club at the Center series. His sterling combo, with exceptional pianist Ed Simon, brought world-class sounds to the space, as well as an informality most appropriate to the club-sized venue.
2. Cecilia Coleman Quintet, Steamers Cafe, Fullerton (April 6). Fine pianist Coleman has that rare commodity among local jazz musicians: the working band. Her program of standards and originals, featuring trumpeter Steve Huffsteter, showed off not only the room's fine acoustics, but also the level a band can reach when it plays together over a long period.
3. West Coast Jazz Party, Irvine Marriott (Aug. 30-Sept. 1). The spontaneous, improvisational nature of jazz was on full-view as nearly 20 musicians each day joined in mix-and-match sessions to interpret the shared language of the standard. Players including trumpeter Conte Candoli, saxophonist Rickey Woodard, pianist Bill Cunliffe, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, drummer-vocalist Grady Tate gave strong, rousing performances.
4. Herbie Hancock Quartet, OCPAC (Aug. 15). Just the night before, the Hancock ensemble, featuring bassist Dave Holland, had given a disappointingly brief presentation at the Hollywood Bowl. Orange County fans saw a wider and deeper performance from the keyboardist, here making a rare appearance on acoustic piano. If only this event had been held in the intimate Founders Hall, rather than Segerstrom's distant chamber.
5. Charlie Hunter Quartet, Galaxy Concert Theatre, Santa Ana (May 10). Playing both bass and guitar lines from his eight-string instrument, Hunter is exposing the under-30 crowd to the wonderful world of improvisation with musicianship good enough to satisfy the rest of us. Hunter may be the only performer capable of treating Bob Marley tunes as jazz standards.
6. The Jazz Passengers, Coach House, San Juan Capistrano (Sept. 5). Yes, Passengers vocalist Deborah Harry showed she can swing, but the real story here was the irreverent, instrumental sound from saxophonist Roy Nathanson, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and the rest of the Passengers. Something entirely different.
7. Alan Broadbent Trio, Spaghettini, Seal Beach (April 21). Broadbent, the pianist heard with Charlie Haden's Quartet West, is a master of mood and texture. This date, with bassist Putter Smith, found him at his most expressive. Broadbent also made memorable appearances during the year at Restaurant Kikuya in Huntington Beach.
8. George Shearing, Irvine Barclay Theatre (Oct. 26). Billed as "The Complete George Shearing," the performance presented the 77-year-old pianist in solo, trio and quintet settings in an evening that validated Shearing's living-legend status. His solo reading of "So in Love," full of mood and rhythm changes, proved that Shearing is still an inventive, witty and passionate pianist.
9. Don Menza, Charles Rutherford's Jazz Pacific Orchestra, Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa (March 24). The respected saxophonist-composer added a touch of class to director Rutherford's ensemble of students and music-program alumni in a showcase for Menza's fine writing abilities. The fact that the student orchestra blended so well with its famous guest speaks well for the future of jazz.
10. Orange County Art and Jazz Festival, Fullerton Arboretum (May 18-19). This most friendly and family oriented festival offered solid musical performances on two stages, led by the Art and Jazz Festival All Stars, directed by trumpeter Jeff Bunnell.