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Cruisin' to the charms of classics

September 05, 2006|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Cool salt air, bright sunlight and bubbling ocean waters do not make a setting usually associated with jazz. But the more familiar environment of smoky, dimly lighted rooms took a holiday Sunday morning during the 12th annual West Coast Jazz Party's Jazz Brunch Cruise, when more than 400 jazz fans embarked on the Hornblower Yacht Entertainer in a 3 1/2 -hour cruise around Newport Harbor.

The music was nonstop on three different decks. The brunch table was overflowing with goodies, and the wine glasses were never empty. If it sounds like a jazz lover's idea of hedonistic heaven, that's pretty much what it was. But what really made the day was the fact that all this luxe atmosphere was the background for some impressively entertaining music.

Pianist Kenny Drew Jr., opening and closing the day on the Entertainer's top deck, offered an engaging set of classic tunes -- "Prelude to a Kiss," "Some Day My Prince Will Come" and "How Deep Is the Ocean" among them -- embellishing each with his rich, rhapsodic style. Bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Clayton Cameron added meticulously supportive, hard swinging rhythmic accompaniment.

Other pianists moved busily from one deck to another in a set of performances that involved a sequence of quick-change musical chairs.

Bill Mays dueted with bassist Lynn Seaton in a sometimes whimsical effort to find tunes associated with the ocean, coming up with spunky versions of "Wave," "Cantaloupe Island," "On Moonlight Bay" and Johnny Mandel's rarely heard "The Shining Sea." (A witty suggestion to include Duke Ellington's "C Jam Blues" was passed over.) Mays then moved to the middle deck to back the wildly enthusiastic trombone playing of Wycliffe Gordon.

Dena DeRose, setting aside her enviable vocal skills, added her brisk pianistic touch to another Gordon ensemble on a different deck and later blended amiably with the dark-toned sound of tenor saxophonist Houston Person. Dave Frishberg, also leaving out the vocals in favor of emphasizing his bebop instrumental style, backed a pair of straight-ahead groups led by New Orleans trumpet stylist Byron Stripling and saxophonist Ken Peplowski.

A pair of groups led by vibist Chuck Redd and guitarist Bruce Forman had no pianists at all (not surprising, given the busy obligations elsewhere). But Redd's crisp articulateness and Forman's thoughtful improvisational musings offered their own musical charms. And by the time the Entertainer made its way back to the dock, the brunch had offered a virtual banquet of music for every taste.

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