Jazz fans from Italy to Sioux Falls, S.D., will have a chance to see saxophonist Eric Marienthal on tour in the next month, but probably none will see him as close-up as those who packed Spaghettini's lounge Sunday evening in Seal Beach.
Marienthal, a Costa Mesa resident, is one of the leading lights of the jazz-fusion world, a musician who turned a stint with keyboardist Chick Corea's band into a solid solo career. An anomaly in the world of smooth jazz, Marienthal is a tremendously capable player and seemingly well-versed in the history of his instrument. He's able to turn even the most pop-oriented fluff into something substantial.
His current album, "Walkin' Tall" on guitarist Lee Ritenour's music label, i.e., is a collection of tunes made popular by the late alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. The disc further clouds the distinctions in his playing: is it Marienthal the straight-ahead jazz man or Marienthal the instrumental pop wonder?
Both were present Sunday at Spaghettini, though he most favored the funky side of things.
Marienthal has always given Orange County followers a taste of his bebop and beyond personality in local club dates. But it was obvious from the rack of electric keyboards and presence of hard-hitting drummer Joel Taylor that the alto man was going to favor the plugged-in side of his persona.
The band opened with the rock-driven "Street Dance," the title tune from its leader's 1994 GRP release, and showed the saxophonist in a serious mood. Even as he played increasingly complex lines, Marienthal kept sight of the tune's driving beat and good-natured appeal. The second number, "One For James," took a funky turn.
His best showings came on material from the Cannonball tribute. On Sam Jones' "Unit Seven," he worked off a cool swing beat with walking electric bass. With understated accompaniment, and sometimes without accompaniment, Marienthal adopted an intense, narrative style, playing bursts of notes in constant salvos.
When the band struck up the groove to Joe Zawinul's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," a hit for Adderley in the mid-1960s, the crowd broke into a cheer. In probably his best blend of pop and jazz, Marienthal again worked with intent, ending his solo in searing tones that captured the soulful spirit of its inspiration, before exchanging playful lines with keyboardist Hans Zermuehlen.
In a heavy-metal version of Sonny Rollins' Caribbean flavored "St. Thomas," Marienthal and drummer Joel Taylor parried. Synthesizers gave color to the standard "Skylark," and, with keyboardist Rob Mullins sitting in, the combo injected swing tempos into Mullins' backbeat anthem "Last Days Of Summer." Mullins stuck around to play his "Here In My Heart," a ballad that had the musicians standing on uncertain ground.
Bassist Vail Johnson, seen last week with Kenny G on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," was a standout. And he never--unlike many bass guitarists in the post-Stanley Clarke era--let ego overpower musicality, instead showing finesse and a sense of dynamics with reserved thumb-pounding and low-end rumbling.
The show ran out of steam as Marienthal engaged the audience in a test of call and response. He couldn't play down far enough to our vocal abilities and his speedy runs soon left us gasping.
* Marienthal's next Orange County appearance is July 30 at Costa Mesa's Neighborhood Community Center, 1845 Park Ave., at a benefit for the High Hopes Head Injury Program. Information: (949) 646-7458.