Saxophonist Chuck Manning and bassist Darek Oles were doubly surprised when they learned in August that their Los Angeles Jazz Quartet was among the four finalists from more than 360 entries in the 1996 Cognac Hennessey Jazz Search.
That surprise was double-deep because another group they played in, pianist James Carney's Quartet, also had made the final four. In a sense, they'd be competing against themselves.
"It was really an honor to be picked twice," said Manning, who will appear with the L.A. Jazz Quartet tonight at Steamers. "It was a completely blind selection process, and the four judges didn't know who was in what band. They were a little surprised too, I'm sure, when they found out."
The showdown between the four finalist groups came Sept. 20 in New York at the venerable Bottom Line club in Greenwich Village. "They really treated us great," Manning said by phone from his office in Pasadena. "The place was packed, and the four judges [including competition director Grover Washington Jr.] were seated in the middle of the club. Each group played for about a half hour. We had worked out a set of original tunes from our next CD."
Though the LAJQ received the second runner-up prize of $2,500 (New York-based Mike Holober Quartet took home the grand prize of $10,000 and an opening spot at the 1997 Playboy Jazz Festival), its members were not discouraged.
"All four of the bands were really great," said Oles (who'll be replaced by bassist Dave Carpenter for the Steamers appearance). "It was just a matter of taste as to which was best."
Oles, Manning, guitarist Larry Koonse and drummer Kevin Tullius have been a quartet for nearly four years. Their first recording, "Astarte," on the Poland-based Gowi label, received glowing reviews for its cool moods and sterling musicianship. Since its release in 1995, the group has concentrated on original material, much of it written by Tullius, that reflects the tone and temper of the Southern California lifestyle.
Manning said the Hennessey recognition only confirmed the band's feeling that the sky is the limit. "It's very exciting, what the band is doing now. It really doesn't matter what we're playing, what the music is. We get our own sound going almost automatically. We know each other's playing so well that we can get into any groove together quite easily; our sound comes together very quickly, even if we hadn't played together for a few weeks."
The Hennessey competition gave the band its first opportunity to play out of state. It worked some 40 dates in 1996, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's jazz series to gigs at such clubs as Jax in Glendale and Twin Palms in Newport Beach. It's exploring the possibility of wider-ranging tours in 1997.
The group is also anticipating the release of its second album, "Looking to the East," in the next few months. The disc will on the well-known classical discount label Naxos, which is adding a series of jazz albums to its extensive catalog. The album, recorded more than a year ago in Los Angeles, includes guitarist Koonse's title tune and other originals from the band members.
Manning said he is already looking forward to recording the group's third album, possibly in the spring. "I've been writing more, and the band has already gone so far past what's on the [upcoming Naxos] album."
Manning plays tenor outside LAJQ with the likes of cornetist-composer Bobby Bradford, pianist Cecilia Coleman (she played New Year's Eve at Steamers with Manning), guitarist Dave Koonse (Larry Koonse's father) and emerging bassist Danton Boller. Oles, recognized as one of the most solid bassists in Los Angeles, just returned from New York where he appeared at the Blue Note club with drummer Gerry Gibbs (son of vibraphonist Terry Gibbs). Oles, who'll be working with saxophonist Jim Snidero Friday, will be replaced for the Steamers date by bassist Dave Carpenter. "Some of our music can be tricky," said Manning, "but Dave's a great reader. He'll do fine."
* The L.A. Jazz Quartet will play Steamers Cafe, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, tonight , 8:30. Two-item minimum. (714) 871-8800.