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`Octet' spans the spectrum

February 19, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

An "Octet in Jazz Language" is a musical concept in progress, and a pretty intriguing one, at that. The premise is simple enough. Start with the unusual combination of players: four first-rate jazz vocalists, Cathy Segal-Garcia, Cheryl Barnes, Stephanie Haynes and Sherry Williams; add poet Michael C. Ford and the sterling trio of pianist Karen Hammack, bassist Chris Connor and drummer Quentin Dennard; assemble a group of tunes -- some familiar standards, some more offbeat originals -- interweave them with Ford's often sardonic poems; and toss in some brisk improvising from the musicians.

The Octet's performance at Giannelli Square of Northridge on Saturday night provided a convincing indicator of the concept's potential, despite occasional glitches in the way it was delivered.

The singers' styles ranged freely across the jazz spectrum. Barnes' impressive vocal range, with its warm, engaging coloration was well displayed in "Why Did I Choose You?" Haynes, who always combines emotional intimacy with a heartbeat of swing, was superb on "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes."

Williams, with a visual appearance reminiscent of a young Ella Fitzgerald, imbued everything she sang with the soul of jazz. She was particularly impressive on a lyrical "Day by Day" and a laid-back, offbeat reading of "How High the Moon."

Segal-Garcia was at her best when emphasizing her dark-toned, middle-range sound in a jazz take on Sting's "Fragile." But it was hard to understand why she rendered the floating melody and atmospheric lyrics of the classic "The Island" as a grooving swing tune.

Ford's poetry (bearing titles such as "Madonna & Prince Are Invited Aboard the Deathstar") sneaked in and out of the songs, sometimes making spontaneous connections, sometimes contrasting in disconcerting fashion. (The juxtaposition of the poem "Whatever Happened to Baby Gretyl," a contemporary variation on the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, was one of the more startling examples.)

But Ford's work possessed the quick rhythms and irreverent spontaneity of jazz, a perfect ingredient for this fascinating musical gumbo. Hammack, understandably known as a superb accompanist for singers, led Connor and Dennard in a demanding sequence of tunes, adjusting their backing for the special qualities of each vocalist.

If there were moments in which more rehearsals were clearly called for, "Octet in Jazz Language" nonetheless was an innovative approach to displaying the rich, varied language of jazz.

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