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MUSIC: Ventura Coutry | SOUNDS

'Penumbra' Rising

CD highlights keyboardist Rob Van's unusual versatility.


Keyboardist Rob Van came west from Boston a few years back, settling in Newbury Park, and has been heard around the area dishing out blues, jazz and then some.

Back east, Van's resume included work with Livingston Taylor, Esther Phillips, Patty Larkin, and scoring National Geographic specials and films.

Such versatility is detectable in his playing. Even on gigs where musicality is less important than providing a pleasant sonic backdrop, Van is known for his subtle touch and tasteful phrasing.

Now, hear him in the comfort of your living room. His debut CD, "Penumbra," is a good demonstration of the idea that jazz with a pop agenda can be inventive and need not succumb to the inanities of the smooth format. That much is clear from the opening tune, "Buster K." (for Buster Keaton), an oddly catchy ditty, which kicks in with urbane chord voicings and slides into a shuffle groove. A quirky melody, played by saxophonist Tom Buckner, leads into a lean and tasty, R&B-flavored piano solo by Van, and soul-saucy stuff from Buckner.

Although much of the production was done in Van's home studio, mostly with electronic drum tracks, he finds ways to vary and humanize the sound, adding guests like Cougar Estrada on percussion, and Jinshi Ozaki and Brad Rabuchin on guitar. Vocalist Tina von Buseck also graces many of the tunes, adding an unusual sonic twist to the overall texture.

The songs go down easy, with small, intriguing touches along the way. "Matilija Creek" is a sweet, loping tune that unleashes its easygoing pop melody without apology. "If Seven Were Four," locked into a slinking 7/4 rhythm and featuring saxophonist Robert Kyle, plays off the title of the Jimi Hendrix tune "If 6 Were 9." The Hendrix connection returns, more directly, with the closing track, a soulful reading of the classic Hendrix tune "Little Wing." On solo piano, Van plays the ballad with a gospel-tinged spirit, ending the album on a lyrical note.

Van and his quartet will give an official CD release party tonight at Border's in Thousand Oaks.

* Rob Van, CD release party, tonight at 7:30 at Border's, 125 W. Thousand Oaks Blvd. in Thousand Oaks; 497-8159.


STRING QUARTET LUSTER: Last Thursday at Victoria Hall in Santa Barbara, the Anacapa String Quartet showed again why it has become one of the finest groups to have sprung from Southern California's musical soil. Since forming in 1989, the Santa Barbara-based quartet has developed a rich, unified sound, in which the strengths of the individuals' playing impressively intertwine into a group voice.

The quartet--violinists Emma Rubinstein and Christine Frank, violist Kirsten Monke and cellist Holly Reeves--have often shown their skill playing standards of the quartet repertoire, but last Thursday, as part of the citywide "Mid-Winter Music Festival," they performed a particularly adventurous program under the title "Music of the Americas." In this case, "adventurous" didn't translate to "difficult listening."

They veered from Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos' Quartet No. 5 to the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera's second string quartet, written in a Bartok-influenced style in 1958. Ginastera, one of those composers deserving greater recognition, created an evocative and sometimes frenzied landscape in this quartet, played with focused passion by the group.

Coming back home to this America, Peter Schickele's Quartet No. 1, "American Dreams," took up the concert's second half. Schickele is sometimes stigmatized by his former identity as the semi-satirical PDQ Bach. But, as this 1983 work shows, he takes his levity seriously.

Its five movements steer a course over American vernacular music, from a "blues" solo on cello to chord voicings that sound like woozy Ellingtonia. Hints of bustling Minimalism segue into some back-porch Appalachian fiddling, which then yields to a Navajo song, in an all-American pastiche that somehow proceeds with a coherent voice.

The Anacapa played the work with fervency and taste, for all its multifaceted worth. Is there a recording in the offing?

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