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Pop Goes the Festival in Newport This Year

Singer Peabo Bryson steals the show as give-'em-what-they-want booking draws a turn-away crowd of nearly 7,000.


On a day-filled with potential headliners--saxophonist David Sanborn, keyboardist Joe Sample, the band Hiroshima--the hit of the Newport Beach Jazz Festival Saturday was a pop singer named Peabo.

That Peabo Bryson, a romantic performer known for collaborations with Roberta Flack and others as well as covers of Disney tunes, stole the show out from under other acts more readily associated with jazz, should come as no surprise. Throughout its seven years, the Newport Beach Jazz Festival (held outdoors on the grounds of the Hyatt Newporter hotel and not to be confused with the East Coast's Newport Jazz Festival) has always taken an expansive view of the word "jazz," favoring fusion, crossover and the smooth side of the art form over mainstream or straight-ahead schools.

The festival's embrace of pop acts this year (the Commodores and Patti Austin appeared last weekend; Chaka Khan and the band WAR were scheduled for the festival's final day Sunday) is a natural extension for its audience. The wisdom of this kind of give-'em-what-they-want booking was reflected in the turn-away crowd of nearly 7,000 that packed the festival grounds.

While Bryson's appearance may have been the audience favorite, it didn't match up musically to Sanborn's frolicsome closing set, the moody instrumental textures of Hiroshima or Sample's magical piano play. But it fit perfectly into the festival's party atmosphere and ignited the crowd, which spent much of Bryson's set on its feet and dancing.

So powerful was Bryson's appeal to the heart that one fan sporting a foot cast threw away her crutches and boogied with the best of them.

Dressed in a black shirt and white dinner jacket, Bryson touched on his work with Flack, his past hits ("Can You Stop the Rain"), his Disney association ("Beauty and the Beast" with backup singer Heather Williams admirably performing Celine Dion's role) and his latest album. Though occasionally caught casting about for pitch, Bryson's clean and intimate style overpowered every lyric. He stepped back only a bit when he brought three children out of the audience to join him on "A Whole New World" from Disney's "Aladdin."

Sanborn's closing set was a relaxed, playful affair fired by the metallic guitar of Dean Brown. Though a longtime member of Sanborn's team, Brown was making his first Newport appearance (Sanborn's previous appearance here two years ago had another longtime associate, Hiram Bullock, substituting for Brown who was touring in Poland).

Brown's frenetic play and stage presence, often having more to do with T. Rex than T. Monk, seemed to light a fire under the saxophonist.

Playing a retrospective of his 25-year recording history, Sanborn was on hair-trigger to soar, squeal or blend his sound with the guitarist's electricity. Percussionist Don Alias added to the fun, teasing the band with his accents, beefing up the sound of drummer Gene Lake with timbales and cymbals, and generally making merry. Keyboardist Ricky Peterson brought R&B touches to the set with bluesy whine from the Hammond organ.

Evidence of Sanborn's influence on saxophone players could be heard earlier in the day on the second stage as Saphon Obois performed with something of Sanborn's sound, but with much more reverb. Also seen on the second stage, was capable guitarist Dwight Sills, who found new inspiration in Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay."

While former Jazz Crusader's pianist Sample gave the day's most musically insightful performance, he had trouble igniting the crowd before turning to the funk of "Hippies on the Corner" and his accompanying rap about misplaced class consciousness. Singer Lalah Hathaway, who teams with Sample on his latest album, came out to perform "Street Life" and the Peggy Lee hit "Fever" whose sultry tempo and message brought the crowd to its feet again.

Hiroshima's brief performance blended jazz-fusion sensibilities with Japanese koto string instrument, taiko drums and flute. Set against the backbeat, June Kuramoto's visually delightful koto play and Johnny Mori's drumming provide the group its exotic sound. But Mori seemed under-utilized through most of the set, ignoring his giant drums in favor of cowbell or hand claps. When he did begin to swirl among the taiko drums, proving the bigger the drum the bigger the groove, the crowd was enchanted.

The Newport Beach Jazz Festival ended Sunday with scheduled performances by Paul Taylor, WAR, David Benoit, Chaka Khan and Jonathan Butler.

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