Jazz, locally speaking

After shows honoring such giants as Bird, Duke, Mingus, Monk and Trane, that quintet of educator-musicians known as the Capital Jazz Project trains its sight on five local composers

The last time the Capital Jazz Project organized one of its concerts, the theme was world music—or at least jazz, as the music is expressed in the far corners of the globe. That was in early November, with “Jazz From Other Lands.”

Going global is a difficult act to follow. Once you’ve expanded your focus to capture the world, where do you go next—Venus? Mars? Especially when your group, made up of five local musicians who also teach, has covered so much ground already.

Since its genesis in April 1997, the Capital Jazz Project (CJP) has staged 27 concerts spotlighting the music of such giants as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, as well as musicians not as well-known outside the jazz world—Cannonball Adderley, Art Blakey, Clifford Brown and Horace Silver. The group has programmed a few contemporary favorites, like Pat Metheny and Weather Report’s Wayne Shorter. It has honored a jazz-label catalog, Blue Note; a couple of sub-genres, the hot postwar Afro-Cuban explosion and the cooler Brazilian wave two decades later; and even a gender, women composers—not to mention at least one show featuring its own compositions.

All over the map, so to speak.

In fact, the closest the CJP got to home in its various explorations was a concert in 2000 that honored the musical contributions of Dave Brubeck, who was born in Concord, grew up in Ione and was educated at the College (now University) of the Pacific in Stockton.

So, when it came time to plan its 28th themed concert, which will take place on Sunday, December 7, the group turned inward—figuring that if a Brubeck could spring from Northern California soil, there might be a few other jazz-related flowers to be plucked nearby.

According to Joe Gilman, the group’s pianist, the original idea was to spotlight Sacramento jazz musicians who write music. “We started listing all the composers we wanted to feature,” he said. “The list got incredibly long.”

The problem lay in programming a successful show that still worked within what Gilman called a manageable timeframe. “We decided that, maybe, instead of taking many composers and only doing one of their pieces, we would do just a few so that we could spend more time on individual composers,” he explained.

Gilman added that such narrowcasting would give the CJP the opportunity to feature another five writers in the future, should the local-composer concept succeed. Old show-business maxim: When possible, set things up for sequels.

The composers the CJP tapped for its maiden local-composer concert are Dave Lynch, Bob Fylling, Scott Collard, Shelley Denny and Steve Homan.

The CJP picked writers whose music the group was familiar with and liked and whose music, stylistically, showed different facets of compositional procedures, Gilman said of the selection process. “It’s hard to really pigeonhole what each of them do,” Gilman confessed. “Dave’s music usually has more of a fusion element to it. Bob’s music we’re not as familiar with, so I’m looking forward to getting the pieces from him. Scott actually wrote a suite for us. Shelley’s got an entire book of tunes that he gave to us, and he’s letting us select the tunes from there. And Steve, he’s given us two tunes he’s written.”

According to Rick Lotter, the CJP’s drummer and percussionist, Gilman asked each of the writers under consideration to submit three tunes. “We didn’t go through and listen to a bunch of stuff and say, ‘Let’s use this tune from this guy,’” Lotter said. “It’s all about selecting people who have been writing in the area and letting them choose what we’re going to play.”

A few names that were passed over this time, Gilman said, included Steve Roach—the California State University, Sacramento, instructor, not the Arizona-based New Age musician—and drummer Mat Marucci. “The original list had 16 or 17 names on it,” he said. “At one point, we even wanted to feature a student composer.”

Lotter said he didn’t know whether any of the writers were scheduled to play with the CJP on Sunday night. “I don’t even know what the instrumentation is going to be on the gig,” he added.

What Lotter does know is the makeup of the core quintet that night. He knows that Gilman, a full-time American River College (ARC) instructor and founding member of the CJP, will play piano. Henry Robinett, one of the area’s better-known musicians and teachers for the past two decades, will play guitar. Kerry Kashiwagi, an adjunct professor of jazz bass at ARC who has mastered both the electric and the standup acoustic iterations of his instrument, will play bass. Mike McMullen, an educator and musician with a long list of professional credits that span three decades, will play saxophone and other woodwinds. And Lotter himself, a drum teacher who also provides the backbeat for area roots-music fixture Mumbo Gumbo, will be sitting in on drums.

What Lotter doesn’t know is the form the concert will take. Yes, the group has an idea what tunes it will be playing, but its typical process is not to look at them until much closer to the date. Then the group gets down to business. “It’s one or two full rehearsals and then a sound-check-slash-run-through right before the gig—usually just enough so that we can make it through pretty cleanly,” he said.

“We never emerge completely unscathed,” Lotter added, laughing, “but it usually goes pretty well.”

“Yeah, three rehearsals,” Gilman concurred. “Some of these guys give us lead sheets, and some of them already have parts all written out, ready to go as a totally conceived piece of music.

“With jazz, sometimes if you over-rehearse, once you get to the concert, it takes some of the spontaneity out of it. It seems like a cop-out,” Gilman said, laughing, “but that’s actually the case.”

One of the composers picked who won’t be making it to the show is Homan. Unfortunately, he already had a gig scheduled that night. The guitarist goes back a long way with Gilman and the others, and he toured overseas with Gilman in 1998 as part of the “Jazz Ambassadors” program sponsored by the State Department and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

So, when Gilman recently showed up at Homan’s doorstep looking for material, Homan pulled out a few things. The two songs chosen were “Eye\Ear\Toe,” which Homan wrote for the once-ubiquitous Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, and “Tioga Rain,” a 1982 composition that Gilman described as folkish—“almost Metheny-ish,” the pianist put it, “or like if James Taylor were to write a jazz tune.”

Homan claimed he was inspired by Mother Nature. “I was up at 10,000 feet at Tioga Lake when I was a kid,” he explained. “And I was hiking and camping, and I saw a beautiful rainbow over a lake. I was up there for 10 days by myself, just hiking up in the Sierras, and I had a little guitar with me. And the melody came to me, like, in a rush.”

The composer copped to an obvious influence from Metheny, who dominated late-1970s and early-1980s jazz guitar the way Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel—to name two influences that enticed Homan down the less-obvious guitar path, away from Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and others—had a generation before. “But I wasn’t ripping him off or anything,” Homan insisted.

Given the context of the CJP show, it’s ironic that Homan—who frequently plays music with his wife, Brazilian jazz singer Francesca Gorre, at such venues as the Stockmarket Lounge & Grill on the Rosemont part of Folsom Boulevard—will be playing a club gig on Sunday.

Jazz, of course, is a hothouse flower that blooms in strange places. Even so, that flower’s preferred milieu, historically, had more to do with nightclub stages than with anything resembling a classroom.

But that doesn’t mean that the music cannot thrive in an academic setting or that a musical form born in the bordello and nurtured in gin mills cannot aspire to gain the respect of polite society. And that’s something the CJP shares with such earlier programs as Jazz at the Philharmonic, which got under way after World War II when jazz impresario Norman Granz—who would go on to found the Clef, Norgran, Verve and, much later, Pablo record labels—began staging jazz in concert halls.

Likewise, the CJP is a group of people that get together with a specific mission, which includes outreach to area schools in addition to its themed concerts. “We try to make jazz a respectable art form equal to classical music and other types of music that have an aura of respect,” Gilman said, “instead of just being”—here, he paused for the right words—“music that is relegated to clubs.

“So, we put on these concerts where we’re bringing that element to the music, as well as an educational element,” he explained. “Usually in these concerts, we’re talking about the music in between each piece, as opposed to just playing and leaving the audience mystified as to what’s going on up there, which is the case, quite a bit, with jazz.”

Gilman most likely isn’t worried that the CJP will run out of material anytime soon. “Obviously, there’s a wealth of people that we haven’t even touched on yet,” he said. “We haven’t done Sonny Rollins yet, or Freddie Hubbard or even Louis Armstrong. There’s a lot of people we want to cover.

“But, still, we want to come back to this,” he concluded, perhaps intuiting that a future giant of jazz composition may be lurking right here in this valley.