If anyone doubts that San Diego turns out its fair share of quality jazz players, September offers abundant evidence that it does. Leading a homecoming is tenor saxophonist Harold Land, who learned to play sax here in the '40s and went on to become one of the few West Coast hard boppers of the '50s, a decade when California was better known for the cool jazz of Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan.
Land, who opened a two-week run at Elario's in La Jolla last night, specializes in smooth, sliding improvisations. He's a master at inventing melodic legato lines, occasionally punctuated by honks and squeals reminiscent of John Coltrane.
After getting his first big-time job with Max Roach and Clifford Brown in 1954, Land went on to record with West Coast bassist Curtis Counce, pianist Thelonius Monk, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and others.
At Elario's, Land and special guest Oscar Brashear on trumpet will be backed by locals Mike Wofford, Bob Magnusson and Chuck McPherson. Harold Land Jr. will replace Wofford on piano Sept. 15-17 so Wofford can keep a recording date with Ella Fitzgerald.
Diego's Loft in Pacific Beach is hosting other ex-San Diegans. Last weekend, Duke Ellington Orchestra trumpeter James Zollar,
who cut his chops at Mission Bay High School and UC San Diego, played to full houses, with Marshall Hawkins' extended bass solos almost stealing the show. This Friday and Saturday nights, Los Angeles saxophonist Charles Owens, who grew up here in the '50s, hits the stage.
Owens graduated from San Diego High School in 1955 and studied music at Prairie View A&M; in Texas, where he spent much of his time cutting classes to play local clubs in a band called The Collegians. Back in San Diego in 1959, he joined the Air Force and soon embarked on a musical tour of duty in one of its bands. Eventually, he did a stint in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he got his first exposure to Latin music, hearing steel drums for the first time and playing with percussionists like Alex Acuna.
After attending the famed Berklee School of Music, Owens joined drummer Buddy Rich's band in 1968, moved over to Latin percussionist and composer Mongo Santamaria's group in 1970 and eventually settled in Los Angeles, where he worked as a free-lancer, playing on a variety of albums by other artists.
A highlight of his career is the 1987 album "Digital Duke," a Grammy winner on which Owens played with the Ellington band. Owens is also proud of the Wind College in Los Angeles, a music school he founded with Red Callender, James Newton and John Carter in 1980.
"John Coltrane and Paul Gonsalves are my No. 1 guys," said Owens when asked about influences. "Gonsalves can play any kind of way. He plays a ballad so warm, it sends chills up and down your spine; 'Trane' can do all the rest. Right now, I'm kind of in between. I'm a mellow swinger."
Owens hasn't made an album of his own since the two he did for Discovery Records in the '70s.
"Every time I play, I record. If I like it, I give it to a few record people. I'm looking for a deal, of course." Come 1990, Owens hopes to put together a fusion band in an attempt to expand his audience (and record label) appeal.
Guitarist/keyboardist Russ Freeman seems to be clairvoyant about what listeners want. His first solo album sold more than 35,000 copies, and the follow up, recorded with several studio musicians banded together as the Rippingtons, sold more than 100,000 copies and remained in the top five of Billboard's contemporary jazz chart for several weeks in 1987. "Kilimanjaro," the second album from the Rippingtons, spent weeks near the top of the charts. Like many of today's young pop jazz players, Freeman is not only a competent musician, but a composer, master of mixing boards and synthesizer wizard. The Rippingtons play two Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay Friday night at 7 and 9.
RIFFS: San Diegans Bobby Gordon and John Best have been without a steady gig together since Jazz Mine Records and CDs in La Jolla closed a few weeks ago. Local jazz fanatic Bob Geib has booked them into Diego's Loft for one night only, Sept. 12. Clarinetist Gordon is just back from performing at jazz festivals in Indiana and Pennsylvania. Trumpeter Best has recorded with many of the great big band leaders. . . .Friday and Saturday, Los Angeles pianist Dave Mackay and San Diego flute player Lori Bell return to Words and Music Bookstore in Hillcrest for a reprise of recent sold-out weekend performances. On Monday, Mackay and Bell will give a flute clinic sponsored by the San Diego Flute Guild at the Scottish Rite Temple in Mission Valley. Local flutists are invited to come and play. The session is open to the public. Bell and Mackay are almost finished recording a new album that continues the Brazilian direction they've pursued in the past, but with a more contemporary, electric sound they hope will land them on a major label, such as GRP or Windham Hill. . . .KSDS-FM (88.3), the San Diego City College mainstream jazz station, is going to the college board of trustees with a proposal to increase its power from 831 watts to 3,000, which would allow its signal to reach north to Solana Beach, east to El Cajon and south to Imperial Beach. Right now, reception is spotty in areas outside the heart of the city. . . . Sax man Gary Lefebvre held a closed rehearsal of his new big band in late August at Diego's Loft, and those in attendance report the sound was incredible. Watch for the ensemble to play a regular gig, possibly at the Loft or in Diego's disco, soon. . . . The Rita Moss Trio is the new source of jazz in D.W.'s Pub at the downtown Marriott Hotel. Pianist and singer Moss replaces L.A. jazz guitarist Ron Eschete, whose popularity caused an initially short gig to stretch to more than a year.