Mint jelly and funky dinner jazz

Drummer Mat Marucci

Drummer Mat Marucci

Jazz long has been a part of the “supper club.” The idea is that one can eat, socialize and then listen to some music conducive to digestion. In early tapes of John Coltrane, one can hear the transition from jazz as background music to jazz as what’s happening; the audience, noisy during the first dates, is quieter a few days or weeks later and is dead silent by the end.

The trick is knowing where to go—both to eat and to listen—and when to go there. Two semi-local restaurants, both of which feature live music events regularly, sported live jazz this past weekend.

Local jazz-funk combo Ben Luco & the Funky Devine ( have scored a regular Friday-night gig at Venita Rhea’s in Orangevale—no mean feat in a town with lackluster jazz audiences. Despite critical trepidation at the concept of an essentially suburban funk band performing at a relatively fancy restaurant (not to mention the absurd name of the combo and the general level of pretension in calling its debut CD Dénouement), the Funky Devine delivered surprisingly solid performances.

The core of the Funky Devine lies in the rhythm section. Chip Conrad (also of St. Simon 3) on the drums and Rob Pigott on bass act as the main source of the group’s sense of funk, as they lay down a beat complex enough to be interesting. Luco himself is a capable if unsurprising sax player. The weak link is the guitar work; Dennis Moriarty’s playing did not seem in touch with the band’s central vibe. Also, the pieces were generally too long. A piece that might be less than three minutes on the CD (such as the second set’s opener, “Tube”) was stretched into six or 10 minutes in the live setting. That’s acceptable if one is listening to a truly great soloist, but for local performers, it gets to be a bit much. Tighter pieces certainly would make for a better band. Check the band’s Web site for more information and show dates.

More impressive was the work of a truly professional jazz act, the Mat Marucci Trio, which performed on Saturday night at Kirby’s Creekside Restaurant in Nevada City. Drummer and bandleader Marucci, a longtime stalwart of California jazz, has a truly superb combo with Aaron Garner (piano) and Chris Amberger (bass). The result is a smooth and organic presentation reminiscent of late-1950s and early-1960s club jazz. Guest vocalist Bruce Kelly, a Nevada County resident, gave the whole evening a swinging feel and delighted the packed lounge with his renditions of jazz standards.

Marucci is someone to watch, with ongoing gigs in a variety of settings and with a variety of combos. His occasional gigs with John Tchicai and Pharoah Sanders—Tchicai is even a featured soloist on two tracks of Marucci’s newest CD, Ulterior Motif—must truly be something special. Even in a relatively quiet setting, it is clear that the trio is capable of stretching its own boundaries. Watch the local listings and Marucci’s Web site ( for more information.