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JAZZ REVIEW

A perfectly jazzy way to end summer

Oh, what's a little heat when you've got a stellar lineup playing cool jazz on a cruise?

September 04, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

With the thermometer rising toward the sweat-drenched century mark on Sunday, a jazz cruise in Newport harbor -- cool music and ocean breezes -- was the perfect escape into late summer pleasures.

The 13th installment of the West Coast Jazz Party once again assembled a stellar collection of musicians into a 3 1/2 -day sequence of personal performances in and around the Irvine Marriott Hotel. Pleasant as those appearances may have been (starring acts by the likes of James Moody, Terry Gibbs, Steve Turre and a Count Basie big band tribute in the Grand Ballroom; laid-back sets by the pool; late-night jams in the lobby bar), the high point of the party was the jazz brunch cruise aboard the Hornblower Yacht Entertainer.

With a cruising speed that appeared to be no more than 1 or 2 knots (the pace of easy walking), there wasn't much concern about nautical queasiness, which was a good thing, given the overflowing brunch tables and busy bars. And, with continuous music on all three decks, party attendees eager to hear all the music had to do a lot of clambering up and down the gangways.

Despite the repeated efforts required to find a strategic listening position among the crowds clustering around each of the three bandstands, the resulting sounds were well worth the efforts.

The low deck featured performances by a trio of first-rate horn players: the warm and swinging sounds of trumpeter Byron Stripling, the brisk assertive passages of trombonist Steve Turre and the dark-toned, melodic inventiveness of tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton. Singer Nancy Kelly's vibrant, rhythm-driven vocals had precisely the right touch of good-time energy for the enthusiastic jazz party audience.

The middle deck showcased Harry Allen's cool tenor saxophone, a perfect antidote for the temperature, as well as another appearance by Kelly. But the highlight was an irresistibly swinging quintet led by vibist Terry Gibbs and clarinetist Ken Peplowski, climaxing in a high- speed romp through the Benny Goodman classic "Air Mail Special." "I couldn't resist doing it," said Gibbs with a smile after the set.

The top deck, open to cooling zephyrs as the Hornblower made its way toward the harbor's opening to the ocean, appropriately offered gentler sounds via the brisk piano (and, surprisingly, the engaging vocals) of Mike Melvoin, a hard-swinging guitar encounter between Bruce Forman and Ron Eschete, and a dynamic set of songs from veteran singer Dewey Erney.

Cruising back toward the dock, the Hornblower was accompanied for part of the journey by a trio of wave-skipping seals. Were they hanging around to hear the music or hoping for samples from the buffet table? Bet on the music.

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