JAZZ / DIRK SUTRO : Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and All That Jazz

Improvisation, the spontaneous invention of music, has always been one of the identifying characteristics of jazz.

Yet many listeners know little about how it works, and some are unable to distinguish between what is written and what is created on the spot. Also, many listeners are unaware that improvisation is associated with music other than jazz.

“Mozart, Beethoven and Bach--the big three--were all great improvisers,” said Harry Pickens, the versatile San Diego jazz and classical pianist who begins a weekly four-part concert/lecture series titled “The Art of Improvisation” on July 19 at 7 p.m., at The Athenaeum, the music and arts library in La Jolla.

Pickens is known to jazz listeners for three albums he made as part of the group Out of the Blue--aggressive, cutting-edge music with the honking, screaming horns and rapidly shifting rhythms of ‘70s New York City loft jazz.


“One of the reasons we decided to use this approach, mixing jazz and classical music, is the Athenaeum attracts classical listeners,” says Pickens, whose prodigious skills come across even while on the phone. While talking, he’s also playing variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"--Mozart’s departures, plus his own ragtime, stride piano and jazz versions.

“We wanted to appeal to a wide spectrum. A lot of people don’t recognize that improvisation itself is really the essence of all musical form in that a large percentage of compositions emerge from improvisatory processes. Most of Bach’s ‘Fantasias’ were improvisations that were written down. The cadenzas in classical piano concerti by Mozart and Beethoven were expected to be improvised. That’s been lost. There are no more than a half-dozen pianists today who can play them properly.”

The July 26 lecture should be especially interesting, a joint effort by Pickens and San Diego pianist Mike Wofford, a tremendous talent who has played with Sarah Vaughan, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter and many others.

The cost for the series is $44 ($36 for Athenaeum members), or $12 per session ($10 for members). Pickens is a captivating speaker who draws on his skills as a specialist in educational and motivational techniques. Music fans of all tastes should come away from the sessions with a new way of listening.


Alto saxophonist David Sanborn, who plays the outdoor amphitheater at San Diego State University tonight at 8 p.m., is an incredibly talented musician whose albums, unfortunately, often smack of Muzak elevator jazz.

His new album, “Close-Up,” includes both inspiring and innocuous moments. Sanborn is at his best when he drops the sugary electronics and bores straight ahead, as on “Pyramid,” a track that features Sanborn’s meandering melody line played over spare, acoustic piano. Sanborn is known for rising to the occasion of live performances, so his Humphrey’s show may be a crowd pleaser. Singer Brenda Russell shares the bill.

After getting his first break as sax man for the legendary Paul Butterfield Blues Band in the ‘60s, Sanborn recorded with an impressive list of heavies including Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, David Bowie, James Brown, The Eagles, Bruce Springsteen and Dan Fogelberg. He’s been backed on his own albums by master studio musicians such as drummer Steve Gadd and L.A. Express leader Tom Scott.

Sanborn’s fame has risen through regular appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman” and as host of “The Jazz Show,” a weekly radio program heard in many U.S. cities, including San Diego (although KSWV-FM, 102.9, is phasing it out). Sanborn also co-hosts “Sunday Night,” a weekly television show on NBC now in its second season, which airs at midnight Sundays on KNSD, channel 39.


If mainstream jazz fans don’t start showing themselves more often at Diego’s Loft in Pacific Beach, the club may stop featuring jazz by the end of summer. The owners have given musical director Holly Hofmann two months to turn around sagging attendance in the cozy 75-seat room, and she’s booking a mix of local and national acts for July and August, including Peter Sprague and Gary Lefebvre July 21 and 22, trombonist Bill Watrous July 28 and 29, sax man Spike Robinson Aug. 4 and 5, Sprague and singer Kevyn Lettau Aug. 11 and 12 and trumpeter Stacy Rowles Aug. 18 and 19. This Friday and Saturday nights, local vocalist Cath Eckert is featured. Diego’s Loft opened a year ago with no cover charge. In April, a $5 cover was added to help pay musicians, and audience size, which occasionally had been close to capacity, has since dwindled.

RIFFS: A quartet featuring San Diego flutist Holly Hofmann plays the fourth of the city of Carlsbad’s six outdoor summer concerts Friday evening, from 5:30 to 7:30 at Magee Park on Carlsbad Boulevard three blocks north of Elm in Carlsbad . . . Also Friday, guitarist Peter Sprague’s quartet plays the noon concert series at Chula Vista Shopping Center. . . “Instrumental Women,” a new weekly radio show featuring the music of female jazz players, debuted July 12 on KSDS-FM (88.3). It’s heard every Wednesday afternoon at 2, with host Janine Harty. . . Tal Farlow, the master of jazz guitar, finishes up his two-week run at Elario’s tonight (July 13) through Sunday night.