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Newport Beach Jazz Party: Newport Beach, CA, February 14-17, 2013

Larry Taylor By

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Newport Beach Jazz Party
Newport Beach, CA
February 14-17, 2013
Thursday was Valentine's Day and the kickoff for the 13th Annual Newport Beach Jazz Party at the Marriott Hotel, Southern California. This four-day event combined two holidays, Valentine's & President's Weekend, bringing together some 70 great musicians, playing day and night—evening concerts in the Grand Pacific Ballroom, afternoon pool-side events and Saturday and Sunday morning brunch shows. For night owls, there were after-hour sessions for listening and dancing. Fans with huge jazz appetites could hear it all; many picked and chose between venues. Those with rooms could sneak away anytime for a nap to recharge.

A big highlight was a tribute Friday night for the great vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, now 88 and still going strong. Gibbs had appeared with clarinetist Benny Goodman, so appropriately, clarinetist Ken Peplowski, the go-to guy for Goodman tributes, shared the stage.

The group, which included Eric Reed on piano, Chuck Berghofer on bass, and Butch Miles on drums, started out with a breakneck take on "After You've Gone," Gibbs' mallets a blur and Peplowski's clarinet boisterously egging him on. Between numbers, they got laughs from the audience with amusing anecdotes about the eccentric Goodman. They closed with another blazer, "Airmail Special."

The tribute's climax came Sunday night with a salute to the Gibbs Dream Band, which flourished on the West Coast in the late fifties and early sixties. The 16-piece organization was named Best Band in the World in the 1962 Downbeat poll. This reincarnation was led by Chuck Redd and featured drummer Jeff Hamilton, along with 16 top Los Angeles area musicians. And, at the end, Gibbs joined in for an adrenalin-filled three final numbers.

Saturday's standout was a septet led by James Morrison, Australian multi-instrument genius. With him were Terell Stafford, trumpet, Eric Reed, piano, Houston Person, tenor, and Chuck Berghofer, bass—Berghofer, seemingly everywhere, certainly earned his pay during the party—and Jeff Hamilton, drums.

It was a pleasure to hear these esteemed musicians, who rarely play together, come up with peerless on-the-spot renditions of ballads and standards. Reed, here, and in several other appearances, prompted rounds of applause; his solos became compositions in themselves, often reaching an audience-lifting crescendo à la Oscar Peterson.

The secret of these events is gathering professionals and putting them together in various combinations, then hearing the marvelous sounds they create. As a promoter has said, "You don't know what you're going to get, but it's almost certain to be tasty jazz."

Thursday's opening concert featured the seemingly ageless Four Freshmen. Since starting out in the fifties, the group has undergone several personnel changes. The replacements are clearly still a big draw as was shown in the near sellout crowd.

The Four were followed by celebrated lyricist Alan Bergman who, in conjunction with his wife, Marilyn, has written a host of enduring love songs over the last decades, including "The Windmills of Your Mind," "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," "Yellow Bird" and "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" During his time onstage, he sang/recited lyrics. He didn't need a singer's voice; the feeling was certainly there and the audience was stirred. Finishing the evening was Sammy Nestico's band. It played love songs—perfect for the occasion.

These parties have been thrown by Joe Rothman and John McClure for many years. For fans, many of whom attend every party, it's like going home for a family event or people renewing acquaintances with fans and musicians from previous years.

Our favorite thing to do here is go to the dinner concerts at Marriott's Sam & Harry's Restaurant. From 4:50 to 6:50, there are two sets. Friday we caught the second which starred Scott Hamilton on tenor saxophone with Italian-born Rossano Sportiello, piano, and Chuck Berghofer, bass. We loved being just a few feet away; it certainly enhanced the experience. The group was peerless on the plaintive "Poor Butterfly," while an energetic "Limehouse Blues" brought an extra caffeine buzz to dessert. Hamilton is certainly carrying on the legacy of Stan Getz and Lester Young with his warm, tender tone and subtle intensity.

Saturday, at the dinner concert, Sportiello had his chance to shine. His take on incorporating jazz with classical gems captivated diners; napkins fell on the floor during the ovation. Previously, in the first set, Peplowski was unchained in a trio setting; we could feel the music's vibrations.

As fans left after Sunday, planning for next year was in the air. They picked up 2014 flyers and many were securing accommodations for next time.

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