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Every Friday night, at the downtown Westgate Hotel, trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos is featuring a different world-class pianist with the bassist of their choice in a series titled, Some Of My Friends Are Piano Players. Last night it was LA phenomenon (and Arturo Sandoval sideman), Mahesh Balasooriya and the venerable Marshall Hawkins.

Castellanos began "5 Spot Blues," out in front, jostling with the theme as Hawkins and Balasooriya filled in behind. A languid pace was established as the trumpeter culled phrases from the blues scale, sculpted lines and squeezed individual notes for emphasis. The pianist began with sparse striking of single notes before launching into a joyful universe where gospel gestures danced with Baroque ornaments. Hawkins dragged his bow slowly across the strings — evoking a guttural effect and chasing the sound of his own voice an octave higher for an impossibly hip solo.

Balasooriya led off "Bernie's Tune," with an infectious and buoyant swing, supporting Castellanos' lines which twisted and turned around the changes with glee and precision, winding his way into upper-register squeals. Ideas seemed to cascade off the nimble fingertips of the pianist as single notes of his right hand commingled with perfectly placed left hand harmonies--and he even snuck a quote from "Mr. P.C." to sweeten the pot. Hawkins strummed pedal tones, open-strings and double-stops, building to stuttering explosions of sound.

On "Moanin," the pianist once again alternated between classical flourishes and wicked snatches of the blues--sort of like Glenn Gould meeting Horace Silver. Gliding on the brisk, muscular walk of Hawkins, he layered parallel lines, multi-note jaunts and locked-hand chords into an effusive climax. Castellanos was all over the plunger mute-- sputtering and growling and stoking the tension with trill repetition while drawing the dynamics down to a whisper. Because Hawkins sings his lines in a synchronized flow with his fingers--his improvisations take on a deeper, more organic nature where every note counts--his imagination seems limitless.

Balasooriya lit into "What Is This Thing Called Love," alone, racing through the contours and evoking Keith Jarrett one moment--then Chick Corea the next as unfettered lyricism met wild flamenco architecture in a feature that was over too quick.

Castellanos breezed through the melody of "The Way You Look Tonight," with a quiet joy that reminded me of why I fell in love with this music in the first place. Stringing one hyper-swinging idea on top of another, his improvisation lifted me into another dimension as Hawkins held it all together with a soft, insouciant walk. Balasooriya refracted fragments of the melody from multiple angles, adding blues touches in a high-speed chase without the sirens.

This is how it's supposed to sound.

Photo by Hiro Ikezi

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