USC's Jazz '99 is described by the university as the largest free jazz festival in Los Angeles. Reasonable as that price of admission may seem, it didn't draw much of a crowd to Monday's opening night performances by the David Sanchez Quintet and the Phil Ranelin Jazz Ensemble at Bovard Auditorium.
And that was a shame, because both groups offered impressive music. Sanchez has come into his own as a tenor saxophonist and a leader in the last year or so, his accomplishments slowly raising him above a crowded field of contenders on his instrument.
A good portion of his program was dedicated to long, extended pieces, filled with epic soloing from Sanchez, pianist Edsel Gomez and bassist Hans Glawischnig and passionate percussion work from drummer Adam Cruz and the amazing Pernell Saturnino.
For some players, improvising on the scale chosen by Sanchez would be intimidating, but the Puerto Rican-born saxophonist was consistently compelling. Blessed with a big, hearty sound and stunning technical fluency, he produced one or two extended improvisations that were reminiscent of some of John Coltrane's more exploratory efforts--and that's high praise indeed.
What made the soloing, as well as the ensemble work, so effective was the turbulent undercurrent of rhythm that propelled everything forward. It was an organic musical amalgam of hard swinging bop-based jazz with complex but foot-tapping Latin rhythms.
The Ranelin band is one of Los Angeles' most musically attractive ensembles. Its front line of tenor saxophone (George Harper Jr.) and trombone (Ranelin) is based on an attractive, and too rarely used, instrumental jazz combination.
The band's opening rendering of "Caravan" in celebration of the Duke Ellington centennial was a superb illustration of solid, straight-ahead jazz, performed by world-class jazz artists (in addition to Harper and Ranelin, Jeff Babko, piano; Tony Dumas, bass; Roy McCurdy, drums; and Taumbu, congas).
* LA Jazz '99 at USC. (213) 740-2167. Today: USC Superaxe Studio Guitar Ensemble, noon, Alumni Park; Jazz Film Archive Presentation, 3 p.m., Topping Student Center; Ernie Watts Quartet, 5 p.m., Alumni Park; Ralph Penland's Polygon and Kamau Daaooud and his Army of Healers, 7 p.m., Bovard Auditorium.