The folks who in 1994 presented Jazz West Coast — a festival that proved historic and valedictory as time passed — came up with another winner this year, “Groovin’ High,” which tightly focused on the early years of bebop, 1945-50. The four-day fest’s opening session made some history, with reunions, comebacks, often splendid playing by key veterans and absorbing panel discussions staffed by eyewitnesses who were also gifted raconteurs.
Bebop is not melancholy music, yet the very first set of the afternoon — a solo piano tribute to Thelonious Monk — found Barry Harris in a reflective mood, serving up gentle, autumnal, sparely notated reminiscences of various Monk standards. Yet the wily Harris held everyone’s attention, showcasing a pair of precocious 7- and 12-year-old brass players from Santa Barbara, spontaneously composing a catchy tune based on four numerals shouted out from the audience.
The ever-ebullient vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, who at 76 still plays about a thousand notes a minute and makes each one count, led a swinging bebop sextet shot through with family ties. Driven hard by Gibbs’ drummer son Gerry, the group also contained the mother-and-son piano/tenor sax combination of Alice and Ravi Coltrane.
This was the first time Alice Coltrane, whose public appearances are rare enough, had played with former employer Gibbs in 37 years; while her ethereal, floating arpeggios were eons removed from bebop, they mixed surprisingly well with the prevailing form on numbers such as “Moanin’ ” and “Lonely Days.” Ravi found a deeper pocket, radiating total confidence and heft, and everyone whizzed through a torridly paced “Giant Steps” as a closer.
The evening concert was turned over to an all-star sextet that tried to give Tadd Dameron, one of bebop’s leading arranger-composers, his due. Yet it was an inconsistent set, with lively solos and some lumbering front-line passages, and there was hardly a word from the stand about Dameron; some colorful tales would have shed needed light on this underappreciated figure.
As it turned out, the chief attractions were the continued swinging vigor of Jimmy Heath on tenor sax, pianist Harris’ transformation into a crisp Bud Powell advocate and, most of all, the comeback of tenorman Allen Eager, who retired in the 1950s to become a race-car driver. After a period of adjustment, Eager caught the groove, conveying a warm, Paul Gonsalves-like eloquence on “Casbah.”