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A party with strings attached

Stars come out to turn Guitar Nights' fifth anniversary into a special evening.

November 07, 2002|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

John Pisano's Guitar Nights have been among the Southland's most consistently entertaining musical experiences. An intimate acoustic setting; a different, gifted guest artist every week, working in tandem with the estimable accompaniment (and soloing) of Pisano: No wonder the programs have continued to draw capacity crowds.

The Guitar Nights have moved through a variety of locations over the past few years. And on Tuesday night, in the elegant environs of their current home -- Spazio in Sherman Oaks -- Pisano celebrated the program's fifth anniversary with an all-star assemblage of jazz guitarists. Most were onstage at one point or another, but the packed house was also sprinkled with other guitarists -- Kenny Burrell, for one -- who simply showed up to share a very special evening with their fellow instrumentalists.

Toward the end of the night, in fact, Barry Zweig -- who had been the first guest artist to perform -- was still wandering from table to table, happily muttering, "Man, isn't this something? This is really something!"

Zweig's opening appearance, highlighted by a light-footed romp through "Just Friends," set the stage for what would be an extraordinary display of the range of styles and manners included under the broad umbrella of "jazz guitar" playing. Following Zweig's smoothly flowing approach, Thom Rotella took a distinctly different path. Unleashing a sequence of angular, darting lines in an opening blues, he dipped into Wes Montgomery's trademark octave-line improvising in a hard-driving "My Foolish Heart."

Sid Jacobs, up next, added an entirely different slant via his remarkable guitar transcriptions of the piano music of Bill Evans. And Laurence Juber -- pointing out that, as the only player of a flattop guitar, he felt like "the proverbial pork chop at a bar mitzvah" -- delivered an energized group of solo tunes. Occasionally tapping the strings to produce a propulsive rhythmic surge, he offered yet another provocative guitar perspective.

The diversity continued with a vocal/guitar medley from Dori Caymmi, brilliantly transforming "Samba de Uma Nota So" into a stunning ballad and evocatively combining "Desafinado" with the classic "Aquarella do Brasil."

And there was still more to come: duo performances by Jim Fox and Bob Bain and Ron Anthony and Ron Afiff; the hard-grooving interplay between Pisano and veteran guitarist Al Viola on "In a Mellow Tone"; and the arrival of the jazz blues guitar in the talented hands and fingers of Phil Upchurch, slipping and sliding his way through "St. Louis Blues" and "All Blues."

In short, an amazing night to remember -- made even better by the knowledge that Pisano's Guitar Nights continue on, embarking toward further anniversaries in programs every Tuesday night at Spazio. Next week's guest star: veteran studio guitarist and USC studio jazz faculty member Pat Kelley.

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