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Review: Anthony Ortega’s jazz brings talent to modern scene

Anthony Ortega
( / Brie Cardosa)

Anthony Ortega, 86, performs with talent. In his case, 60-odd years of blowin’ horns can make you believe in the truth of what he’s playing. Something to believe in is rare and really a lot of fun. It is reassuring that magic does happen; it’s real, it exists. You can grasp its deepest meaning by listening to Ortega. Talent can mean many different things to many different people. In this particular instance, it is Ortega’s ceaseless entertainment of his audience that matters most.

Ortega has an incredible, highly personal approach to timing and phrasing. His tone is also superlative. He is not alone in his expressions of musical magnificence. But he’s here and now in Encinitas at a casual venue — Mr. Peabody’s Bar and Grill. He plays alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, clarinet and flute. He does a little singing, too. His vocal phrasing, though vaguely reminiscent of Chet Baker, mild and sensitive, has a tonal flavor all his own.

As with all things musical, one comes to learn that Ortega is original. Originality is perhaps the most difficult facet of genius and talent. This sets an individual way above all their peers.

When Ortega plays his alto saxophone, you might be reminded of Charlie Parker or the super-mellow Paul Desmond. When Ortega plays the tenor saxophone, Lester Young may come to mind. Paul Horn’s beautiful flute exhortations can also be heard with his emphasis on ethereal lightness. This is all well and good, but merely a starting point, or point of reference for Ortega’s departure into what truly matters most: the expression of genius in art that is highly entertaining.

A set by Ortega with his trio is a thing of beauty and joy, wonderful to behold with no cover charge. There is a tip jar on a pool table off to the side. His bandmates are much younger than he, and he gives them each lots of room for solos and improvisation. Pianist Art Olsen, his son, drummer Tyler Olsen, with stand-up bass player Caleb Furgatch sound quite good enough to see on their own. Ron Stewart has also sat in on drums on occasion to great effect. With Ortega as their leader, they shine in a fabulous manner.

Instrumentalists of all pursuits along with stylish vocalists, all with super chops, are invited to sit in and jam with Ortega and his band in the last set of the night. It seems he enjoys this as much as they do. The music he coaxes from them is sublime. Ortega brings out the very best in all those fortunate enough to play alongside him, enabling them to drive him to further heights of melodic performance.

Ortega started way back in the 1950s. Since then he has played with many musicians, including Hank Jones, Sonny Stitt, Jimmy Cobb, Clark Terry, Eric Dolphy, Wynton Kelly, Max Roach, Lionel Hampton, Quincy Jones, Art Farmer, Dinah Washington, Billy Taylor, Gerry Mulligan, Maynard Ferguson, Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Lalo Schifrin, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Barbra Streisand and Frank Zappa.

“The true goal of music is melody,” according to J.P. Kernberger (1771). With certain genius, Ortega’s performances all pursue, explore and proclaim melody. With innate rhythm and pitch, he forms a tonal color with chord intervals delicately interspersed with improvised counterpoint. There is profound thinking behind his solos. These may sound, initially, like jamming, and it is. But there is a lot more to it. It all sounds great and makes us smile and laugh as he weaves his way through each song. He is lyrical and he is cool. His “outside” playing is always within the context of the performed piece. His exceptional creative ability and originality provide the basis for his unprecedented leaps of insight that miraculously make the standard tunes his own art.

Ortega’s career has not been recorded in the volume that is equal with his talent, but there have been several re-issues of some earlier work. He records well; all of his selections are top-notch. His most recent disc is from the Hat Label in 2001. Featuring the classy drum work of Joe LaBarbera with the piano stylings of Mike Wofford, “Scattered Clouds” shares 10 cuts of melodic joy.

“The Street We Took,” a video visit/documentary by Andrew Rubin in 2007 with Anthony Ortega along with his wife, Mona, is well done and stands as priceless as historically codifying the talents of this very cool and hip couple. They are still in love and it shows. Rubin caught that with his lens. They are both consummate performers and entertainers. Their mutual love is a core element in their music and their lives. “The Street We Took” is available on You Tube.

See and hear Anthony Ortega’s Jazz Jam perform at Mr. Peabody’s Bar and Grill from 6 until 10 p.m. Sundays at 136 Encinitas Blvd., Encinitas; call 760-753-7192.


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