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Mix-and-Match Ensembles Life of the Party


IRVINE — The mood was blue Friday on the opening day of the three-day West Coast Jazz Party held at the Irvine Marriott, but that hardly put a damper on the festivities.

Before closing act and headliner Jimmy McGriff churned out blues and standards from the Hammond B-3 organ, a good number of the nearly 20 other musicians who participated called up the spirit, if not the actual three-chord form, that has served as the basis for so much jazz and popular music. Even in its most fun-loving moments, the first night of the third annual WCJP could be seen as a celebration of a music commonly thought to reflect suffering.

But here, the blues, presented in a variety of hues, made for a great party. A group fronted by flutist Holly Hofmann and featuring robust tenor saxophonist Rickey Woodard explored "Blues in the Closet." A septet spotlighting the front line of trumpeter Bobby Shew, tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb, baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola and trombonist Dan Barrett filled such jazz standards as "Groovin' High" with myriad blues references.

Even vocalist Sue Raney, best known for her pure, angelic treatment of ballads, sang an impassioned "The Meaning of the Blues" followed by Antonio Carlos Jobim's samba "Chega de Saudade" ("No More Blues") before turning the stage over to the blues-minded McGriff.

With ticket sales up some 40% over previous years and an audience of well over 400 on opening night, the WCJP had good reason to sing happy. And its policy of bringing together a rotating cadre of musicians to jam in mix-and-match groups of five, six and seven frequently made for exciting spontaneity.

Standouts included Stacy Rowles' mellow fluegelhorn work on "There Is No Greater Love," and one-time Mel Torme bassist John Leitham's stalwart play, both in a quintet led by trombonist Barrett. In that same group, pianist and first-time WCJP participant Junior Mance showed a rollicking style on the bop classic "Yardbird Suite."

Flutist Hofmann followed with a septet that included saxophonist Woodard, pianist Gerald Wiggins, bassist Andy Simpkins, drummer Roy McCurdy and guitarist Ron Eschete. The six performed in heated contrast to Barrett's cool fivesome.

While the party championed the tradition of bringing disparate, though like-minded, performers together in the common language of the standard (pianist Larry Fuller had not met vocalist Raney before accompanying her), it also demonstrated the advantages of the working band during the performance of drummer Jeff Hamilton's trio.

In the most musically attuned performance of the night, Hamilton's 3-year-old unit, with keyboardist Fuller and bassist Lynn Seaton, proved that familiarity results in tight execution and a certain freedom that comes when each man knows just how to respond to the other. Hamilton's brushwork was especially impressive as he worked up a sizzling stir-fry on an upbeat rendition of "Yesterdays."

While the Hamilton trio offered the evening's most polished moments, organist McGriff's performance, which also featured the drummer, was notable for its looseness and good-natured swings of mood. Without breaking between tunes, McGriff led Hamilton, guitarist Eschete and saxophonist Woodard through straight blues, then turned unexpectedly into brief ballad statements and Joe Zawinul's funky "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" before returning to the blues. Crowd-favorite Hofmann joined the band for an impromptu jam based on "America the Beautiful."

The West Coast Jazz Party continued Saturday with scheduled headliner saxophonist Scott Hamilton and Sunday with a jazz cruise in Newport Harbor and an evening concert featuring trumpeter Jack Sheldon's orchestra.

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