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Jazz Review

What Exactly Is 'Smooth Jazz'?

Above all, it's party music, as the packed crowd at the sixth annual Newport Beach festival could tell.

May 17, 1999|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — Saturday's opening installment of the Newport Beach Jazz Festival served to prove just how blurred the designation of "smooth jazz" has become. This sixth annual celebration of the music variously dubbed adult-contemporary or smooth jazz, held on the grounds of the Hyatt Newporter hotel, featured a diverse lineup that included a slick trumpeter, a churchgoing vocalist, a flamenco-styled guitarist and a raunchy, R&B saxophonist.

Throw in a guitarist who quoted Jimi Hendrix, an electric keyboardist with a sunny attitude and a singer of round-midnight standards, and you begin to realize that smooth jazz can be anything and everything, a term as nebulous as most musical categories.

Above all, smooth jazz is party music, geared for a good time. And Saturday's headliners--guitarist Marc Antoine, trumpeter Rick Braun, vocalist Oleta Adams, guitarist Lee Ritenour and saxophonist Dave Koz--succeeded especially well in this respect.

The shoulder-to-shoulder crowd on a gently sloping fairway on the Hyatt's golf course was the largest and most enthusiastic in recent memory. (This year's attendance was so large that by noon the parking lots surrounding the Hyatt were closed and latecomers were directed to Fashion Island parking, a 20-minute walk away.)

Between acts, there was music on a second stage high atop a wind-swept hill from keyboardist and Newport Beach resident Scott Wilkie's band or smoky vocalist Jacqui Naylor's mainstream combo. Nearby, vendors of food, drink, crafts and other services added to the carnival atmosphere, and there was plenty of opportunity for mingling with fellow fans.

Today's smooth jazz has its roots in the 1960s jazz-funk experiments of trumpeter Lee Morgan, pianist Horace Silver and especially saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. The 1999 edition of the Newport fest was at its best when it recalled the spirit of those days.

Braun and Koz each led bands that embraced the same rhythm-and-blues influences that Adderley and others once mined. Yet Braun, even in his best moments, played second-rate Miles Davis, and his band lacked the rhythmic sharpness that marked Miles' crossover ensembles. Koz is an exciting visual player but had little new to say, though his band was a degree tighter than the trumpeter's.

These quibbles matter little under the bright sunshine in a garden setting, with wine flowing freely and much of the audience on its feet grooving with the band. Braun and Koz both ignited the crowd with steady beats and emotive, if somewhat pretentious, play.

The tightest and ultimately most satisfying of the day's performances came from guitarist Ritenour and a band that included saxophonist Eric Marienthal and electric bassist Melvin Davis. Combing through 20 years of material while throwing in allusions to Hendrix's "Purple Haze" and Davis' "Tutu," Ritenour and company managed to keep the party going full steam while providing some serious musical moments.

Earlier in the day, singer and pianist Oleta Adams provided soul-stirring, Christian contemporary numbers with an electric band that made the link between flesh and spirit. She gave the day its most reflective moments with her version of Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday."

On the hilltop stage, keyboardist Wilkie's band played two sets of strongly melodic, well-executed numbers that held smart solos from Wilkie, guitarist Matthew Von Doran and bassist Nathan Brown.

The day's smoothest performance came from lounge vocalist Naylor, who, swept by a steady breeze that blew sheet music off the stage, sang two short mainstream sets haunted by the ghost of Billie Holiday with an acoustic combo featuring saxophonist Bob Johnson.

The Newport Beach Jazz Festival was scheduled to continue Sunday with guitarist Larry Carlton, saxophonist Kirk Whalum, the Rippingtons, saxophonist Najee and others.

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