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Jazz Review

Norman Tentet Revisits '50s Sound With a Twist

May 21, 1999|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At first hearing, the Phil Norman Tentet comes across as West Coast jazz of the '50s revisited. It's an image that leader and tenor saxophonist Norman likes to encourage, and it was in full bloom Wednesday in the band's one-night appearance at Catalina Bar & Grill.

The group's charts had the bright ensemble sound and brisk rhythmic quality of such '50s collectives as the Dave Pell Octet and Shorty Rogers and His Giants (all of whom, of course, owe a debt to the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool ensemble). And Norman underscored that connection at one point by playing an updated version of an arrangement from the Pell book: "Have You Met Miss Jones."

But, to their credit, the Tentet, blessed with a talented lineup of players, is considerably more than a revival band. Norman, who maintains the group with financial support from his considerable success as a stockbroker, has commissioned a far-ranging array of arrangements, many from pianist Bob Florence and saxophonists Roger Neumann and Rusty Higgins. "Just the Ten of Us," for example, by Neumann--one of the evening's thorniest compositions--went considerably beyond the frothy West Coast style, its roving lines energized by a rich harmonic foundation. Other pieces--a ballad titled "Phyllis" by Florence, trumpeter Carl Saunders' tribute piece "Theme for Jobim"--were similarly adventurous.

Norman's emphasis upon arrangements, however, raised the perennial question of the appropriate relativity between improvisation and composition in jazz. And there were times when the band weighed in a bit heavily on the side of delivering well-crafted, well-played written music that minimized the role of improvisation. Fortunately, those pieces were balanced by numbers that allowed the featured soloists--Saunders, Higgins, Neumann and trumpeter Ron Stout--to open their arsenals of spontaneous invention. And it was during those moments, when improvisation coursed freely through the band's fine compositions, that the Tentet was at its very best.

* The Phil Norman Tentet also performs at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach on Saturday and at the Pasadena Jazz Festival on May 30.

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