By Don Heckman
Studio City, CA. On any given night in Los Angeles, world class jazz can be found in venues stretching from Orange County to Ventura County, with many stops in between. And Saturday night was no exception, when the prime quartet of saxophonist Bob Sheppard and pianist Otmaro Ruiz (with bassist John Belzaguy and drummer Jimmy Branly) performed a stirring program at Vitello’s in Studio City.
The selections were varied – Horace Silver’s “Barbara” and Bernie Miller’s “Bernie’s Tune” among them, in addition to originals from both Sheppard and Ruiz.
But the highlights of the evening virtually all traced to the jam session-like improvising, allowing each of the players to stretch out in completely spontaneous fashion. Sheppard was, as always, articulate, expressive and imaginative, on both tenor and soprano saxophones. Ruiz’s eclectic style added Latin touches to his solos, occasionally tossing in a rousing montuno in contrast to his authentically boppish single note lines.
Give credit, as well, to the rhythm team of Belzaguy and Branley, the engine that kept the band in high gear for most of the set.
What was missing, however, was very little reference to the music promised in the advertising for the evening: “Celebrate the Season! – Latin Night – Feliz Navidad.” Despite the generally high quality of the playing, there was little in the program specifically oriented to the holiday. And, with the presence of Venezuelans Ruiz and Belzaguy and Cuban Branly, one might have hoped for something more in the way of Latin jazz excitement.
Also missing was the unannounced but rumored sitting-in presence of some of L.A.’s fine jazz singers. Several were in the audience, but failed to take the stage.
That said, it was nonetheless an evening of the sort of world class jazz I mentioned above. And, heard in action, regardless of their selection of material, the Sheppard/Belzaguy quartet’s playing was a potent reminder of the sort of jazz that’s available almost every night in the Southland.