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Don't let the white hair or the huge, thick glasses fool you, even with 90 candles on the birthday cake, guitarist Mundell Lowe remains a vital force in the pantheon of jazz guitar. Last night's birthday concert celebration at Tango Del Rey in Pacific Beach featured an artist at the top of his game, playing better than ever, with the energy of someone half his age.

Perhaps the first thing you notice about Lowe is his sound. It's warm, fluid and fulsome. Combine that tone with a selective and economical sense of what to leave out and you get a partial idea of what makes him such a guitar treasure. There is a purity in his improvisations that cuts to the chase. This isn't to imply that Lowe doesn't have chops, because his dexterity has not diminished with time.

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, speaking of Louis Armstrong, once remarked that the "hallmark of virtuosity is nuance, not velocity." Truer words have rarely been spoken. Lowe exhibits both markers in his playing.

With a Southern California all-star quartet featuring LA drummer Ramon Banda, bassist Rob Thorsen and the sublime "bluesician" guitarist Bob Boss in tow, the concert began with "Blues In The Closet," which served as an appropriate vehicle to warm up the chops.

Lowe continued with a breathtaking, ad-lib chord-melody intro to set up "Darn That Dream," which he used as a springboard to dive into a piquant single-note solo over the muscular bass of Thorsen. Boss followed with a patient construct of chromatically linked chord-tones that built in intensity.

Banda's swirling brushstrokes and sizzling hi-hat lit the path for a salient examination of "There's A Small Hotel," that swung with quiet propulsion. Even when Lowe is just playing chords, his distillation of time has an inevitable sense of flow — wide, and deep enough to float a cruise ship. Boss found a completely different stratagem for weaving through the harmonic contours — he and Lowe have a perfect sense of complimentary dialog happening, and to wind the tune down, Banda engaged in a series of deliberately explosive accents.

They strutted through a harmonized version of the drunken theme to "Blue Monk," with appropriate swagger, lacing their solos with gutbucket commentary, and transformed the Benny Goodman--associated warhorse "Stompin At The Savoy," with streams of ideas that teased the edges of the harmony.

Boss got a beautiful moment in the spotlight with a solo reading of "Autumn In New York," where he revealed his own mastery of chord-melody and voice leading.

There were poignant moments in "I Remember You," and flashes of alacrity in "Yardbird Suite," which swung like nobody's business.

Lowe brought his step-daughter, violinist Alicia Previn, to the stage for two highlight moments. Her improvisations showcased a wicked vibrato and fluid glissandi, and she almost had a western-swing kind of touch to the instrument, which she played sans-amplification.

Finally, special guest, guitarist Jaime Valle arrived, fresh off another gig, to join in the celebration. Valle and Lowe have a special hook-up and it was obvious on the final two numbers. Valle steered things into unexpected territory with a Latin groove on "Body & Soul," and then transformed "Black Orpheus," into a slow swinger, setting the stage for an astonishing series of octaves and block-chords, bringing to mind the iconic Wes Montgomery.

After more than two hours of high octane guitar artistry, Lowe bid his farewell by saying, "If you're ever wandering through a run-down neighborhood, and you pass by a shabby bar with our names on the marquee, come on in, we need you."

Right back at you, sir.

Photo by Michael Oletta

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