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Guitarists strum their stuff at Pisano affair

The host's 10th anniversary at Spazio brings out the area's best.

September 20, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

In case anyone doubted that the guitar belongs in the foreground, with sax, brass and piano, as one of the jazz world's primary instruments, Tuesday's 10th anniversary celebration of John Pisano's Guitar Nights at Spazio in Sherman Oaks was a vibrant reminder.

From 8 p.m. until midnight, a nonstop parade of the Southland's finest guitarists streamed across the stage. One marveled that on a single night, in a single location, so much first-rate talent could be on hand. Even more, the performances, from lesser-known to established players, took place at a consistently high level.

Pisano's stewardship of these weekly guitar jams undoubtedly had a great deal to do with the turnout. A veteran whose résumé spans stints with Chico Hamilton and Frank Sinatra and duets with Joe Pass and a founding role with the Tijuana Brass, the guitarist balances superb accompaniment abilities with articulate, airily paced soloing.

With nearly 20 guitarists eager to play -- with the steady backing of bassist Jim Hughart and drummer Kendall Kay -- Pisano occasionally stepped aside from his usual duet role, allowing various other pairs to match skills.

Before he did, however, he paired up, first with Pat Kelly, then Frank Potenza, on romps through "There Is No Greater Love" and "And I Thought About You." In each case, Pisano's subtle chording and gently swinging solos provided perfect counterpoint to the assertive lines of his partners.

Next up, Bruce Forman's duets with Potenza and Mike Anthony revealed more inspired improvising, especially from Forman, whose colorful style, with its mix of arching melodies and fast-fingered virtuosity, was one of the evening's highlights.

Other players followed in rapid succession -- Tim May, Dan Sawyer, Barry Zweig and Ron Anthony, with Zweig and Anthony's pairing on "Broadway" an irresistible example of contemporary guitar swing.

Jim Fox and veteran Bob Bain's take on "Crazy Rhythm" was equally propulsive, and Frederico Ramos, working with Pisano, offered a stunning version of "One Note Samba."

Other players -- Ron Eschete, Jamie Rosenn, Mark Towns, Doug MacDonald and Steve Cotter -- made the most of their relatively brief appearances.

The pinnacle of this remarkable night was the duo of Anthony Wilson and Larry Koonse, using "It Could Happen to You" as the springboard for an astonishingly inventive, on the spot set of variations.

Perhaps more than any other pairing, that of Wilson and Koonse revealed why the guitar has become such a definitive jazz voice. Using all the instrument's capacities -- long, single-string solo lines, bent notes, rhythmic strumming, lush chording -- and tossing them back and forth in ever more fascinating musical challenges, the musicians delivered a performance that defined what John Pisano's Guitar Nights are all about: the pleasures of the contemporary jazz guitar.

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