Bill Watrous brought his trombone and his quartet Shelly Berg (piano), John Leitham (bass), and Randy Drake (drums) to the Jazz Spot April 21st and 22nd for a wonderfully varied, virtuosic performance. Standards such as "You Don’t Know What Love Is" led into originals such as "El Cajon," a spoof on Johnny Mandel’s tribute to Al Cohn. The quartet served up both "Girl From Ipanema" and "Close Enough for Love" in a uniquely happy double-time.
In slower ballads, Watrous reveled in a mellifluous legato. Though Watrous had a 101-degree fever, his playing seemed almost unaffected by the demanding 3-hour show. The audience, some present for all three sets, enjoyed his versatility in not only tromboning but also whistling, scatting, and singing. Watrous’ brief bits of whistling and jowl-shaking scatting sounded fun and natural. But the audience only politely indulged his foray into singing, which was a little stiff and not yet so well supported as his trombone playing.
Fans of Watrous trombone will tell you he not only plays fast, but also lyrically. Playing quick passages is especially difficult since the trombone’s slide action involves one’s entire arm, not just a fluttering of the fingers. But Watrous, age 60, proves that with decades of practice, the trombone can be a flexible instrument. In his book, Trombonisms, he shares his modern playing techniques. Sparingly, tastefully applied ‘bonisms Friday night included circular breathing and multiphonics (singing one note while playing another).
Watrous, designated as "Number One Jazz Trombonist" for seven years running by Downbeat magazine, teaches trombone at USC (which may explain the professorial 3-piece suit). His jokes are corny but his musical humor is entertaining.
Shelly Berg, who heads up the Jazz Studies department at USC, is not only a terrific pianist but fascinating to watch imagine Stevie Wonder minus the dark glasses, or an ecstatically happy Anthony Edwards. He puts his whole body into his playing, bouncing his leg from side to side in time, and bucking the piano like a bronco during especially animated parallel-octave passages.
The grins and grimaces of John Leitham are beautifully bizarre. His fabulous left-handed bass playing effortlessly manages two lines of melody at once. Drummer Randy Drake (eyebrows enthusiastically raised as if saying "Hey, great idea!") shows tremendous restraint even on his solos. In one, he repeatedly smashes and then silences the cymbal, for a great dramatic effect.
The Jazz Spot is, as Watrous remarked, "a class joint." This newest Los Angeles jazz venue already hosts a loyal audience because it books some of the best names in jazz. The club aspires to the likes of Catalina’s and the Jazz Bakery. A $15 cover on weekends gets you in for three one-hour sets (starting at 8pm), but the very friendly staff will also encourage you to buy drinks or tapas (the calamari is excellent).