President's Weekend Jazz Party--Newport Beach, California

Larry Taylor By

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When Pizzarelli came out, he proceeded to put his own stamp on the Sinatra canon.
President's Weekend Jazz Party
Newport Beach, California, Marriott Hotel
February 15-18, 2007

Great jazz was performed on President's Weekend at the 7th annual Newport Beach Jazz Party before sell-out crowds, the music sounding better than ever this year.

From Thursday night through Sunday night, February 15-18, performances were staged throughout the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel virtually every hour of the day—breakfast jazz brunches, afternoon Pool Stage sessions and, of course, evening concerts in the Grand Pacific Ballroom. And if that were not enough for afficionados to get their fill, every evening was topped off by after-hours night-cap music in the lounge and bar. Late Saturday night was especially well-attended when revered tenor sax-man Houston Person presided over the yearly dance event, giving patrons a chance to "shake it on the ballroom floor.

Each evening's concert was highlighted by a feature presentation. On Friday John Pizzarelli appeared with his trio, singing and playing guitar. His mellow-hip style, influenced by Nat Cole, was greeted with enthusiasm. Cole's "The Frim Fram Sauce and the whimsical standard "Rhode Island were highlights.

Saturday's feature was a full-scale celebration, "The Music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, produced by esteemed flautist Holly Hoffman. The tribute included eleven violins, alternately led by pianists Mike Wofford and Bill Cunliffe. Veteran drummer Jeff Hamilton and Brazilian percussionist Luis Conte made up the rhythm section. Hoffman's playing of Jobim's lilting melodies seemed to float above the ethereal beauty of the strings. Later in the set, bossa nova singer/guitarist Paulinho Garcia brought the music back to its earthy origins with the breathy romantic urgency of his singing. Altogether, everything worked to a degree that surely would have made Jobim proud.

Sunday night's "Dear Mr. Sinatra program, once again featuring the versatile John Pizzarelli, was every bit as special. The program was tied to the recent CD release of Pizzarelli's collaboration with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, showcasing music associated with Sinatra. Without pretending to imitate "Ol' Blue Eyes, Pizzarelli put his own spin on the Sinatra songbook.

The Clayton-Hamilton band was outstanding, introducing the program with three numbers on its own. Recent poll-winners, this aggregation is surely among the best present-day big bands—tight, well synchronized, with each section bathing listeners in subtly shifting waves of sound. Leader John Clayton—tall, slender, his long arms waving like a sorcerer's as he conjured a magical arrangement of "Lullaby of the Leaves"—set the stage for the appearance of the featured attraction. When Pizzarelli came out, he proceeded to put his own stamp on the Sinatra canon. The swinging "Ring-A-Ding Ding, Arlen/Mercer's boozy, melancholic "One for My Baby, and Burton Lane's lively musical question "How About You? left no doubt that Pizzarelli can handle the songs Sinatra transformed into standards.

These shows were the featured attractions, to be sure, but at the heart of what makes these parties so good is the playing of the collection of world-class musicians (totaling over seventy) gathered for the occasion. Co- promoter John McClure puts them together in various configurations with exciting, often serendipitously inspired results.

Among the groupings was that of pianist Benny Green and tenor saxophonist Houston Person, the pair performing together Friday and Saturday nights. Almost thirty years Green's senior, Person, with his large warm sound, melded perfectly with virtuoso Green's often minimalist playing. On ballads, Green builds each solo into an exquisite jewel, and on up-tempo numbers he digs in hard, coming up with solid gold. The audience was rapt as he lovingly played with Cole Porter's "I Love Samantha," then made the piano shout as he got "down and dirty with Person's lusty turn on Curtis Maryfield's "Send Me Someone To Love.

One could go on at length about the superb interplay in the various settings. There were the marvelous trumpeter Terell Stafford and clarinetist Ken Peplowski going back and forth on Denzil Best's speed-breaker "Wee. The audience, agreeing the two couldn't have played any faster, was jubilant. Stafford, with Person this time, hit the stratosphere with his rocketing "Lester Leaps In, and then hushed the crowd with his tender "I Remember Clifford. Another memorable set came when John Clayton on bass with son Gerald on piano joined drummer Jeff Hamilton in a trio setting. The threesome excelled as a cohesive unit on the young Clayton's "Sunny Day Go, which seemed a small suite as much as a song.

Promoter Joe Rothman likes to describe the music he presents as "right down the middle and straight ahead. The description is apt. The body of what was heard at the party was certainly in the "middle," cutting straight to the heart of jazz.


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