Two brilliant musicians, both from long and distinguished careers recording and formed a bizarre duo more than two years ago and their unique sound came back to La Jolla once more last Thursday to a sell-out crowd at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall Street.
Flutist Ali Ryerson and guitar player Joe Beck gave a very polished performance on their unconventional instruments. Beck quipped that Ryerson's alto flute, being tuned to the key of G, is so long it had to be bent so she could reach all the keys. Then he explained that his guitar is tuned in F. It has two bass strings, two guitar strings and two banjo strings. The pickup is split to give the bass its own channel. He said the design has been picked up by a commercial manufacturer that will be bringing out the Joe Beck line.
Beck likes to call his invention an alto guitar, although he confessed, some guys in England once told him there is already something called an alto guitar to be found in the extremities of the Peruvian rain forest.
The Ryerson and Beck alto sound is so very full and rich that it allows the group to comprise just two musicians. Thus Beck can change key or change tempo very rapidly and Ryerson is able to run with it right away. Beck has told more than one reporter, ''She's playing as if she was the seventh note on my guitar."
Only the previous week, one journalist wrote that this richness was like a quart of cream. But cream can be cloying, and some may feel like barfing after the first half pint. These Connecticut Yankees give such a polished performance.
Ryerson has a phenomenal background in classical flute and in bebop. She has worked with Art Farmer, Lou Donaldson, Maxine Sullivan and Stephane Grappelli. She made significant recordings as a leader. Also she cuts a better figure in a sheer strappy black evening gown than most women can expect to at age 46.
Beck was something of a child prodigy on the New York jazz scene. Now 53, his resume boasts associates such as Paul Winter, Stan Getz, Gary McFarland, Chico Hamilton and Gil Evans. He has worked with Miles Davis, and recorded with Duke Ellington. He even served as conductor for Frank Sinatra from 1977-78.
Beck's a snappy dresser too, in a pale suit and stripy tie. And his wisecracking commentary throughout the set is amusing enough. "We also switched clothes. Ordinarily I wear the black." The audience was happy to chuckle along, even when the stream of consciousness became a little obscure. Introducing a bossa nova, Beck described composer Antonio Carlos Jobim as a funny guy. "He could find Johnny Walker Black in the Vatican."
Ryerson told La Jollans that the Athanaeum was one of her favorite venues to play in the world. Beck called for a round of applause for that dress. "She brings out the heavy artillery for the nicer venues."
Through "Autumn Leaves" and "Song for my Father," tracks from their 1997 album, Alto (on the DMP label), the repertoire wove uneasily close to easy-listening territory. But, just as John Coltrane famously made something wonderful out of "Favorite Things," Ryerson and Beck can be trusted to find something new and worthwhile in "Ode to Billy Joe."
It can't be dismissed as elevator music when it is elevated to such innovative heights. It's a thrill to hear Beck thrash out the opening bass line of the Beatles' "Come Together" but what an earth will the flute do when it comes to that almost monotone melody? Ryerson somehow rises to the challenge and then introduces some fireworks at the middle eight.
Maybe the secret of their commercial success as a duo is that they create such sophisticated music so deftly that it sounds like it must have been dumbed down, even when it hasn't.
The Athenaeum's Jazz Guitar III series continues on Thurs., Feb. 10, at 7:30 p.m. with the Alison Brown Quartet. Brown, who grew up in La Jolla, will be accompanied by Garry West, bass, John R. Burr, piano, and Rick Reed, drums.
Admission is $16 ($14 to Athanaeum members). Call 858-454 5872 for reservations.