Ninety Miles featuring Stefon Harris, David Sanchez & Nicholas Payton Samueli Theater December 14, 2012
Last year, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, tenor saxophonist David Sanchez and trumpeter Christian Scott recorded a terrific album in Cuba under the title Ninety Miles. The album was recorded with a Cuban rhythm section but is far from a guayabera-toting, Buena Vista society jam. Instead, the result was a hard-driving work that dug into a wide range of genres, firmly planted in the present. On Friday night, Harris and Sanchez brought their tour to Costa Mesa with trumpeter Nicholas Payton in lieu of Scott and a four piece rhythm section ready to blaze.
The band has either three leaders or no leader depending how you look at it. They only played four tunes in a little over an hour and the three marquee names each took a turn at the microphone, usually introducing their own compositions. Harris seemed to enjoy the MC duties the most, introducing the band with enthusiasm and humor, drawing eye-rolls from his bandmates and smiles from the crowd.
Harris, boxed in by his marimba and vibraphone, opened the set, hammering across both keyboards on "Brown Belle Blues." As the group joined him for a brisk, off-kilter blues, he continued to support the band with his left-hand on the marimba while his right kept a steady pattern on the vibraphone. Harris made joyous sounds throughout the set, humming like a glass harp at times, while piercing through the rhythm section with an unnatural strength at others. When he splayed four mallets across two hands, he was able to provide intricate chordal support to the rest of frontline.
Sanchez played the good cop. His delicate take on "the Forgotten Ones" brought out his smoothest tones, painting a picture with patience and breathy phrases. He did the same on "Brown Belle Blues," eventually building to a muscular honk. His demeanor and approach created a considerable contrast with the bad cop.
Payton, in white sneakers and a low-brimmed hat, brought the fire from the first note until the last. His original tune, "The Backward Step," was the one song from the set not featured on the record. The band was at their funkiest on this tune as Payton began to stretch out. His trilling blasts tested the limits of the microphone, scalding the crowd with unbelievable force. The crowd cheered between breaths and each time they did, he returned mightier than before.
The rhythm section was filled with Carribean-soaked ringers including pianist Edward Simon, bassist Ricky Rodriguez, drummer Henry Cole and percussionst Maracio Herrera. Those four held down the beat, staying largely out of the way. Simon took a sweet solo on "E'Cha," spreading his lanky fingers across the keyboard in a jangle of montunos, stride and swing.
Just as the band seemed to be hitting their stride, they walked off the stage and that has been the theme the last two shows in Costa Mesa. To Ninety Miles' credit they had three other shows for the weekend, I'm not sure where Ahmad Jamal was off to.
Personal Bias: The Samueli Theater is one of the nicest rooms hosting jazz in Orange County. With a nice sound system, roomy tables and a bar, they have captured a great ambience for a night out.
The Crowd: Old enough to remember when anyone could hop on a flight to Cuba without question.
Random Notebook Dump: 7:30pm on a Friday night is kind of a rough showtime.