Feeling Kind of Blue

Capital Jazz Project reunites with trumpeter Tom Peron to inject a little Miles Davis into Sacramento’s flagging jazz scene

Jon Hoops, Mike McMullen, and Tom Peron come blow their horns.

Jon Hoops, Mike McMullen, and Tom Peron come blow their horns.

Photo by Jill Wagner

Sacramento’s live jazz scene is in crisis.

Venues where musicians can improvise in front of audiences keep disappearing, while club owners point to shrinking audiences when they justify a change to more pop-oriented music. And what passes for “jazz” is often a musical form that may not fit within the parameters of the genre as defined by its pioneers.

Local stomping grounds the Bull Market, the On Broadway, Melarkey’s, Harry’s Bar & Grill and Busby Berkeley’s have disappeared off the jazz radar—memorable spots where pianist Jessica Williams, vocalists Kristen Miranda and Joyce Diamond were regularly showcased. Gone is the vibe, or happening scene, that surrounded Jimmy Robinson, Tom Peron and Steve Homan; a period when groove master Roger Smith and the Henry Robinett Group packed the nightclubs—even on off nights.

The Stick N’ Rudder and the now-defunct Artiz Jazz Club in Folsom have vanished, victims of poor location, while the Pavilions “Jeans to Jazz Concert Series” is on extended sabbatical. Even “Third Thursday” at the Crocker Art Museum has mutated into a smooth happy hour.

Finally, last year KXJZ, the local NPR station that plays jazz, changed its format to news programming during the day.

Nevertheless, there is a ray of hope on the horizon for jazz fans when trumpeter Tom Peron rejoins the Capital Jazz Project to play Miles Davis—the ‘50s Small Groups on Sunday, March 17.

“I’m sure every adjective in the book has been used to describe the impact of Miles,” Peron says. “I love Miles, especially that period of time; it’s more my style, anyway. This should be a good reunion concert, performing those old tunes we used to play at the On Broadway.”

Past CJP concerts have included music from Blue Note Records along with jazz pioneers John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Art Blakey and Duke Ellington, so a giant such as Davis would be a natural extension of that.

“Miles had a great range and total control of the instrument,” Peron says. “He had a true individual voice that was heard immediately, even back when he was playing with Bird in the 1940s. Miles introduced different ways of improvising; that was one thing that Jessica [Williams] taught me when I was young: You want to create your own voice.”

Capital Jazz Project is a nonprofit organization committed to stimulating the public’s interest in jazz through performing and making educational presentations. CJP has worked to make jazz accessible to the Sacramento region’s diverse population, identifying areas of deep concern within the arts community. After five years of educational lectures and concerts, the group has maintained a professional ensemble of musicians; it continues to foster an appreciation for jazz as a serious art form through the regular and continuous programming of jazz masterworks.

Dr. Joe Gilman, pianist and music director for Capital Jazz Project, is also a full-time professor at American River College, where he directs the music theory and jazz studies programs. He recently won second prize in the Great American Jazz Piano Competition in Jacksonville, Florida, and has twice been an International Jazz Ambassador through the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the United States Department of State, traveling to West Africa in 1999 and East and southern Africa in 2000.

In addition to Gilman, current Capital Jazz Project members include saxophonist Mike McMullen, guitarist Henry Robinett, bassist Kerry Kashiwagi and drummer Rick Lotter; the latter can be seen with his other high-profile group, Mumbo Gumbo. The ensemble has released two compact discs, Capital Jazz Project and Kalon, which feature original compositions by band members and new arrangements of standards.

Gilman explains the rough guide to Sunday’s Miles Davis concert. “The selected material comes from a few albums, starting with the first great quintet,” he says, referring to a group that featured Davis, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers. “These recordings [Workin’, Relaxin’, Cookin’ and Steamin’] were on the Prestige label. CJP will also focus on the early Columbia recordings with the same group [Round About Midnight] and the same band with Cannonball Adderley added and Bill Evans replacing Garland on piano, and eventually Jimmy Cobb replacing Philly Joe on drums. These albums are Milestones, ‘58 Miles (Jazz Track), Miles and Monk at Newport, Jazz at the Plaza and Kind of Blue.”

This group became Davis’ classic backing band, which integrated modal improvisation to jazz. Modal jazz—in which the improviser was given a scale or series of scales, or modes, as material to improvise from, rather than a sequence of chords or harmonies—is best represented on Kind of Blue, perhaps the most influential and best-selling jazz record ever made.

“We’re also going to augment the program with some reissue stuff from Blue Note Records as well as a piece from Dig,” says saxophonist McMullen. “We’re happy that Tom is making a special guest appearance for this show. Also, Sacramento saxophone legend Steve Gundhi is being added to the three-horn lineup.”

The recordings of Davis, during this time period, display lessons in space, brevity and lyricism. Also, you’ll hear the sound of sadness and resignation. Davis acted as an inspirational overseer, freely speaking out about racism, and was known to be a stern disciplinarian.

Davis composed “So What,” “All Blues,” “Milestones,” “Freddie Freeloader,” “Nardis,” and many tunes that today are considered standard repertoire for aspiring jazz musicians. His popularity was so great that he mistakenly received composer credit for a number of modern jazz standards such as “Blue in Green” by Bill Evans and “Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk. Also a great sound stylist, Miles introduced the use of the Harmon mute.

Trombonist Phil Tulga and Peron—who is also known as “Tom Cat"—were members of the original Capital Jazz Project. Family lives and demanding work schedules dictated some change.

“I just got so busy that I had to bow out because I ran out of time,” he says. “Funny how things work out where you go months—even a year—without a gig, really. Suddenly, you have two within a week.”

The second gig Peron mentions will feature the Peron/Spangler Interplay Quartet, which will top a concert bill at Cosumnes River College on Thursday, March 21. The quartet features Peron, drummer Bud Spangler, bassist John Wiitala and pianist Joe Gilman.

“It’s been a couple of years since we played, actually,” Peron recalls. “We’ve all gone in our own directions for a minute. Bud and I have been in contact throughout this period of time and have done a couple of casuals—weddings, corporate functions and private parties—but no public gigs. That’s why I’m trying to do this thing. We had an idea to come up with some sort of a package; our buddy Ron Cunha, who was at Sac State for 10 years, relocated to Cosumnes [River College] and is the jazz director. The college has a really nice auditorium.”

This performance will also showcase the CRC Jazz Ensemble and special guest artists the Rio Americano AM Jazz Band, directed by Craig Faniani.

“We’ll probably play quite a few selections off our first two compact discs,” Peron explains. “It’s more of a reunion than anything—we’re so busy. With Bud and John living in the Bay Area, we don’t have an opportunity to rehearse. So we’re going to go in and play. It should be really fun!”

Peron also is in his third year as a teacher at Rio Americano High School, instructing the FM Jazz Band, one of four jazz ensembles at the school. “It’s going great,” Peron says. “Craig Faniani and Josh Murray are the school’s two full-time band instructors; I was hired to teach the one [FM] band.”

Saying Peron’s teaching schedule is full might be modest. “I’m there an hour a day,” he says. “The first two years were zero periods; the schedule changed this year to second period from 9 to 10 a.m. Waking up every day at 5:30 a.m. is hard, you know, but Craig has been doing it for 20 years. Downbeat is at 7 a.m.”

Peron constantly stays busy by teaching 65 private lessons a week, spending three days instructing in Sacramento and three at Watermelon Music in Davis. He also performs casuals with the New Originals, a popular, versatile rhythm and blues band. Upcoming dates include stops at Crawdad’s River Cantina.

As for musicians like Peron, there isn’t any local spot with a consistent jazz policy these days. Harlow’s features lounge music during its Sunday supper with no cover, and business has changed the music policies at supper clubs Aces and Jazzmen’s Art of Pasta. Jazz soloists and trios occasionally provide a backdrop at such restaurants as Enotria, Paragary’s and Mace’s.

For a serious jazz player, that may not be enough. "Well, you know, the dance music is fine," Peron says. "But this town certainly deserves a jazz club. It sure would be nice to have something going again."