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UCSD's The Loft presented an all too unique opportunity to catch some of San Diego's less visible but no less vital jazz musicians last night with a performance by the Kamau Kenyatta Group, featuring drum pro Richard Sellers, bassist Antar Martin, saxophonist Ben Schachter, multi-instrumentalist Tonga Ross-Ma'u, and several star students joining Kenyatta's soprano saxophone and keyboards.

Martin's deep, loping bass vamp opened "Song From The Underground Railroad," layering with Seller's chilling ride cymbal pings and Ross- Ma'u's minimalist comping to set the stage for Kenyatta's languid exploration of the theme from John Coltrane's epochal album Africa Brass.

The saxophonist has a personal sound on the straight horn--somewhere between the dry cough of Steve Lacy and the liquid whimsy of Wayne Shorter. His ideas were very Coltrane-esque without resorting to mimicry. What was particularly great about the opener was how they made the tune their own--Kenyatta winding elliptical ideas into a layered vortex, then watching as Ross-Ma'u built his solo from micro-ideas into a compelling story. All the while, Martin and Sellers kept a trance-like groove in motion.

Ross-Ma'u switched to guitar, Kenyatta to keyboard and Schachter took the stage to interpret "Isis," a strong Latin groove that found the guitarist delivering a nice, squiggly John Abercrombie style solo. It was hard to get a read on Kenyatta's keyboard prowess, given the fact that no acoustic instrument was available-- I heard a lot of strong ideas--but wasn't wild about the sound of the instrument. Schachter is a burner, that much I can affirm.

Kenyatta's lilting original waltz "Shahida," was next, sublime chord movement eliciting breathy curlicues from the tenor, who laced tight melodic flurries while Martin's bass lines--stronger than Lance Armstrong's coffee--kept it all flowing.

Kenyatta brought a student, guitarist Daniel Mandychenko, to the stage for an upbeat romp on Billy Strayhorn's "Johnny Come Lately," letting the man loose for an excellent, swinging and bluesy solo that only bogged down when he visited the repetition well once too often, perhaps. Schachter tore into it, whipping scalar velocity into a froth bearing dollops of altissimo screaming--then Martin took off with a stealthy alacrity, keeping it low and resonant with a huge singing tone.

They closed the set with another Kenyatta original, "Detroit 1970," which sounded like a cousin to "Giant Steps," plus pedal tone sections. Over the yeoman -like walk of Martin and the garrulous drumming of Sellers, Ross- Ma'u bounced clear-toned tangential arcs around the changes while Schachter built layered geometric additions to a repeated idea before getting his 'Trane on in a duet with the percussionist. Sellers actually brought the volume way down to begin his solo--an architectural structure of pure beauty and logic that led right back into a furious reading of the head.

I wish I had caught the second set, and the rest of the guest musicians. Next time.

Photo by Brian Ross

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