By Don Heckman
There was good news for jazz Friday night at Catalina Bar & Grill.
Good news because the Sunset Blvd. Jazz club – L.A.’s principal destination for world class jazz groups – was packed.
Good news because the enthusiastic crowd seemed captivated by the music.
And, best of all, good news because the headlining act – the Ron Carter Trio – played a set that was a virtual definition of jazz at its finest.
The Trio’s instrumentation – Carter playing bass, Donald Vega playing piano, and Russell Malone playing guitar – was a stunning example of jazz minimalism: no drummer, no horns. And they handled it brilliantly.
The atmosphere on stage was a blend of jam session spontaneity with the subtle but complex interplay of a classical chamber ensemble. Collective passages seemed both organized and off the cuff. Solo passages flowed imaginatively through open spaces in the ensemble, allowing each player to reach into his deepest well of creativity.
Carter made a few soft-voiced comments between selections. But, for the most part, the music unfolded with a natural connectivity, regardless of the specific selection.
Malone was featured on “Candlelight,” a dedication to guitarist Jim Hall. Vega soloed on “My Funny Valentine.” And Carter chose “You Are My Sunshine,” a classic country tune he also selected as an unlikely solo vehicle a couple of years ago in a performance at Royce Hall.
A veteran player who was highly visible for years as a close musical companion to Diana Krall, Malone brought his far-ranging versatile eclecticism to his solo passages. Blending fast-fingered virtuosity with appealing lyricism, his soloing recalled, and honored, similar qualities in Hall’s memorable playing.
Vega, a jazz prodigy as a teen-ager, now a mature artist, found new ideas in the often-played “My Funny Valentine.” Approaching the classic standard from a new perspective, he often lured Carter and Malone into collective passages, instantly providing contrast and support for his stunning solo lines.
And Carter, the most recorded bassist in jazz history, once again had fun with “You Are My Sunshine.” Approaching his instrument with the pizzicato accents of a cello, he roved freely across the familiar melody. Digging into its roots, lining up the theme in his own unique fashion, his playing occasionally recalled a classic version of the tune recorded by Sheila Jordan and George Russell. But by the time he had melded his soloing back into the Trio collectivity, he had completely made it his own.
No wonder the audience was so reluctant to allow the Carter Trio to leave the stage. The opportunity to hear a performance as stunningly imaginative as his Trio had offered was a rare experience indeed. And this listener, no doubt like the rest of the applauding crowd, looks forward to the music Ron Carter will bring to his next, too-rare appearance in the Southland.