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Leigh Sutherlin at Tango Del Rey, San Diego, CA

Dan McClenaghan By

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Leigh Sutherlin Quartet
Tango Del Rey
San Diego, California
August 16, 2009

San Diego may not have the most robust of jazz scenes, but there are clubs out there doing their share to shine a bright light on artists local and national. Dizzy's In Downtown has been a local mainstay, featuring artists as diverse as trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, free jazz dynamo Satoko Fujii, and the quirky, rock-tinged Seattle band Matt Jorgensen + 451. The Athenaeum in La Jolla has hosted pianist Amina Figarova and the group Fly, and the Anthology is getting some serious jazz traction with artists like Charles McPherson, Peter Sprague and Natalie Cole.





And now The Tango Del Rey, one of the city's more intimate venues, that showcased on Sunday, August 16, pianist/vocalist/bandleader Leigh Sutherlin and her top-tier jazz quartet.

Opening the set with "Mais Que Nada," a 1966 top-forty radio hit for Sergio Mendes & Brazil '66, Sutherlin and company's crowd-grabbing take on the bossa nova number glowed, with a tight groove, high-energy level and a lean-forward-in-the-seat momentum that put the crowd in the palms of their hands.

Sutherlin has assembled a crack quartet, with electric bassist Sly Simon, drummer Brad Rehn, both of whom appeared on her debut CD, Sandbar, with added percussion textures this night supplied by Nacho Sobers on congas. The ensemble sound was crisp on the up-tempo tunes: "Mais Que Nada," the Sutherlin original, "Surrender," and a particularly rousing instrumental take on Steely Dan's "Black Cow." The atmosphere was closer to a Miles Davis cool jazz mode on an as-yet-unrecorded Sutherlin gem, "Jazz Bone."

"Beautiful Love," another Sutherlin tune, was the most tenderly gorgeous moment of the night, a musical exploration of all the different facets of the emotion, from pensive joy to wistful teardrops, with Sutherlin's piano style—with a refined delicacy and supple touch—bringing pianist Bill Evans to mind.

Sutherlin's vocals brimmed with deft phrasing and heart-felt emotion on Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me," and especially Arther Herzog's "God Bless the Child." With her blond-haired, blue-eyed, pretty lady-next-door good looks (glammed up and sparkling like starlight shining through a stained glass window this night), Sutherlin doesn't look like someone who could pull off the soulful Billie Holiday hit. But she made it her own, with a feeling of world-wise, world- weary conviction. Add to this a take on Wardell Gray's "Twisted," which became a vocalese hit for Annie Ross in the late '50s and was reprised in the '70s by Joni Mitchell. On this seriously swinging, humorously-engaging novelty song, Sutherlin channelled a neurotic, visions-of-grandeur diva convincingly, with fittingly strung-tight aplomb.

And there's no getting around a mention of Sutherlin's instrumental solos. The band mixes World with mainstream and pop with great skill, but when the pianist takes a solo, things move up into the adventurous and edgy side of sound, lifting the music into another dimension.

The band wrapped it up with a very up-tempo turn on "Whitecaps," a catchy Sutherlin instrumental original from her CD, featuring yet another star burst of a piano solo, capping off a night of first-rate jazz in San Diego.

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