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Back Room, not back burner

John Hammond does his usual 88-key magic and draws attention to a Canoga Park venue worth visiting again.

November 28, 2005|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Pianist John Hammond deserves a medal from west San Fernando Valley music fans for his continuing efforts to bring first-rate jazz to the area. His too-brief tenure several years ago at Fitzgerald's in the Hilton Woodland Hills attracted an impressive lineup of the Southland's finest jazz talent. Now he's in the process of establishing yet another, though very different, jazz-west outpost in the seemingly unlikely environs of Sherman Way in Canoga Park.

It's called the Back Room at Henri's, and that's precisely what it is -- a warm, inviting space behind Henri's Restaurant that is reminiscent of the laid-back neighborhood jazz bistros of the '40s and '50s.

On Saturday night, it was packed with a boisterous, friendly crowd, with folks at one large table celebrating a birthday. But this was not the sort of "turn-down-the-music," nonstop-talking crowd one finds in some jazz rooms. This audience managed to listen and participate in the music while reveling in a social evening with friends.

Hammond's great musical versatility, always one of his most attractive characteristics, was on full display in a set that featured singer Cheryl Barnes, with the solid rhythm accompaniment of bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Kendall Kay. An unflappable accompanist, Hammond's backing embraced every vocal twist and turn, supplemented by his brightly swinging, two-handed chording and brisk bebop lines.

Barnes, whose style owes a great deal to Sarah Vaughan, was at her best in the melodic paraphrasing and dark vocal timbres she brought to ballads such as "And I Thought About You" and "My Foolish Heart." Her scatting, though well intended, was less successful.

But the real achievement of the evening was Hammond's discovery of another attractive music destination via the Back Room's blending of neighborly ambience, authentic jazz and modest prices.

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