Reno gets Jazzmas

Jazz recording artists to perform holiday concert in Reno

From top, John Shipley, Michael Lington and June Kuramoto, among others, will perform at Jazzmas.

From top, John Shipley, Michael Lington and June Kuramoto, among others, will perform at Jazzmas.

When John Shipley left Reno for brighter career horizons in Los Angeles and New York City about 25 years ago, a jazz scene existed in Reno.

“When I moved away, there were 12 to 14 house bands with 10 to 16 musicians in each,” says the composer and keyboardist, one of the founders of the jazz-fusion group Hiroshima. Not anymore. “If you multiply that out, that’s a lot of musicians who aren’t working anymore.”

Times changed and music changed.

“That’s neither good or bad,” Shipley says. “You have to evolve, move on. I’ve evolved, moved on. I do a lot of things, not wait for the phone to ring and play a party somewhere.”

These days, Shipley’s evolution has brought him full circle back to Reno, where he still has his hand in producing records and recording. And he’s pulling some of his friends to Reno for a new event that he hopes can become an annual thing—Jazzmas.

The event, billed as a “celebration of the spirit of jazz, joy and jubilation,” features a concert at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts on Dec. 21. Before the concert, a pre-party will feature schmoozing with the artists, like June and Dan Kuramoto of Hiroshima, saxophonist and hit recording artist Michael Lington, Miles Davis’ guitarist and vocalist Randy Hall, and Greg Wright, former Motown producer for such greats as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and Natalie Cole.

“I’m fortunate enough to be associated with some really good players,” Shipley says. He has a story to tell about each of his friends.

“I’m really excited about Randy coming up,” he says, telling me about Hall’s Top 40 hit and the Miles Davis connection. “He was the only singer ever to sing on a CD with Miles Davis. … Randy and I met playing out in the streets with a different band. Randy was just great. He got involved with my project, Shipped.”

Shipped is the back-in-Reno artist’s new CD, produced by Wright and getting play on smooth jazz radio stations. Hall, who’d worked for a gangsta rap record company, gave Shipley’s classic compositions a younger rap and R&B feel, Shipley says, an urban sound that worked.

The Kuramotos, of the jazz fusion group Hiroshima—a group that Shipley helped put together in the late ‘70s—also pitched in with Shipped. The pair will be on hand at Jazzmas, with June adding the instrumental touch she’s nationally known for on an instrument called the koto.

The 13-stringed Japanese instrument lends distinct Asian flavor to Hiroshima’s harmonies and Shipley’s keyboard maneuvers. Kuramoto is a classically trained koto performer, playing just as easily with Japanese masters as with the American jazz group.

One of the pieces she’ll be playing at Jazzmas, “The Koto Blues,” is a piece that came as a result of a suggestion from a fan, Bill Cosby.

“Bill asked if we could play the koto in traditional American format,” Kuramoto says. “With that inspiration, we added ‘The Koto Blues’ to our song list.”

Also, saxophonist Lington will perform songs from his latest CD at Jazzmas. Lington, who recorded “Twice in a Lifetime,” a No. 1 smooth-jazz hit this summer, is a newer friend, Shipley says, “a good-looking guy that plays the sax.”

“He’s from Denmark [and] has that great accent,” Shipley says. “He looks better than Kenny G.”

The musicians had planned to come together in September for the Tahoe Jazz Festival.

“That was one of the many things that fell out because of 9-11,” Shipley says. The September performance was a benefit for the Boys & Girls Club of North Lake Tahoe. Proceeds from Jazzmas should help the club make up for the loss it incurred in September.

And then there’s the Lear Theater benefit, which Shipley hopes many folks will take advantage of. For $150, the benefits are impressive, he says. Sure, you get great seats for the show. But wait—there’s more.

“You get my CD,” he says. “You get to wine and dine at the Siena and meet all the artists. So often, you come to a show and the artists are busy. [They] quickly do the show and go to the next town.”

The holiday season seems a wonderful time, though, for music as spirited and spiritual as Shipley’s. It’s no coincidence that the concert is intended to boost community organizations—while it also relies on the combined talents of a tight community of musicians.

“I feel very much that we’re all connected," Shipley says, "and that there’s one master musician we get all our inspiration from. … [I] believe that what you believe is what happens in your life. You can have a happier, richer life just by choosing to. A rabbi in Palestine said the same things."