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JAZZ REVIEW

Imaginative talent gets sidetracked

August 30, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Jazz artists have been trying to synthesize elements from pop into their music, one way or another, for the past century. Some of the more recent efforts -- Weather Report, Return to Forever, the Miles Davis electric bands -- have managed to do so without abandoning the essential core of what jazz is all about. Others -- Branford Marsalis' Buckshot LaFonque -- have been so concerned with proving their pop credentials that they've given up sustaining their own inner creative identity.

The performance by Russell Gunn's six-piece band at the Santa Monica Pier on Thursday was an oddly ambiguous combination of both categories. And Gunn's trumpet playing -- varying from tune to tune -- further enhanced the split-personality character of the music.

On some of the selections (none of which was identified), Gunn's playing was lyrical and imaginative, enhanced by the fine keyboard accompaniment of Nick Rolfe. Reminiscent, at times, of the work of Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan, it nonetheless had a distinctly personal quality, as well. The product of an inventive musical imagination, his improvisations displayed a talent filled with creative potential.

Most of the set, however, was devoted to Gunn's insistently professed desire to be a fully contemporary artist -- one who is completely in sync with hip-hop, rap, etc. The dominant element in those tunes was the turntable and random sound work of DJ Apollo.

Nothing wrong with wanting to be in touch with the musical focus of one's generation (Gunn is 31). But dull music is dull music, whether it's bebop or hip-hop. And too often Gunn's high-flying solos were shot down by repetitive bursts of simplistic turntable scratches.

Japanese pianist Hiroki, opening the set, was a virtuosic whiz. But she needs to balance her fast-fingered excursions with some layered inner emotions.

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