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Laid-back kicks with a couple of guys

June 29, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Every now and then the separation between audience and performers becomes virtually nonexistent. In fact, it's not even completely accurate to use the word "performers" in reference to Wednesday's appearance at the Jazz Bakery by alto saxophonist Frank Morgan and pianist Ron Mathews.

With Morgan seated unassumingly in a chair, a few feet away from Mathews' piano, they simply played a series of tunes, as relaxed and laid-back as though they were casually jamming in a close friend's living room. Obviously unplanned, the choice of material was completely spontaneous, occasional glitches simply contributing to the intimacy of the set.

At 73, Morgan has carved a career path that's led from early promise as a Charlie Parker successor through decades spent in prison (the consequence of heroin addiction), musical and personal recovery in the mid-'80s, the debilitation of a stroke in the late '90s, and yet another remarkable return to playing in the new century.

All of that life history was present in every note Morgan played. His interpretation of "In a Sentimental Mood," for example, was as mesmerizing as a Billie Holiday vocal. Sticking to the melody, adding a little ornamentation here and there, he told his musical story not just with the notes he played but with the pulse-stopping silences between the notes -- a stunning display of jazz balladry at its finest.

Other tunes were no less compelling: a stroll through the blues that incorporated a few key phrases from Parker solos; a low gear version of "Confirmation" juxtaposing sinuous slow phrasing with sly, colorful note bursts.

Mathews, 71, was an empathetic accompanist, constantly receptive to Morgan's sudden twists and turns, strikingly inventive in his own solos. Together, Morgan and Mathews are offering a rare evening of utterly intimate music making no jazz lover should miss.


Frank Morgan and Ron Mathews

Where: Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City

When: 8 and 9:30 tonight and Saturday night

Price: $30 today, $35 Saturday

Contact: (310) 271-9039

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