Translating Feelings : Don Grusin, who has composed 120 songs since the mid-'70s and has had his works recorded by many notable jazz artists, says, 'My idea of a good day is to spend it writing songs.'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about music for The Times

Don Grusin has played his melodic brand of contemporary jazz piano with Quincy Jones, Lee Ritenour, his brother, Dave Grusin, and many others. But he'll be the first to tell you he's no wunderkind when it comes to the instrument.

"I'm not a virtuoso, never have been," said Grusin matter-of-factly from the home in Malibu Canyon he shares with his wife, Peggy, and their 9-year-old daughter, Sadie.

"I started piano at age 6, but I quit at age 13, because I hated the light classical music I was having to play for my teacher and at recitals," said Grusin, 51. "Then later, when I started playing again, I realized I didn't want to follow in Dave's footsteps and go to a conservatory. He made me see that I needed to devote a lot more energy to the piano to get close" to his level. His brother, six years his senior, has become an Academy Award winner.

Don Grusin, who presents a different program each evening tonight through Sunday at the Room Upstairs at Le Cafe, said that over the years he has "preferred to be interested in other things." One source of pleasure was economics, in which he earned a master's degree from the University of Colorado in Boulder, and which he has taught in Colorado, California and on a Fulbright program in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Now it's composition that has emerged as Grusin's primary focus. "My idea of a good day is to spend it writing songs," he said. The enjoyment, he said, is connected to translating "an inside feeling into something that I can hear back and say, 'Yes, that's pretty close to what I was feeling.' "

Grusin, whose most recent album is "No Borders" on GRP Records, said, "What I'm writing may not see the light of day as a song or end up on a CD. It's more important that what I wrote fairly communicated the idea that I was trying for."

Grusin has been writing songs since the mid-'70s, and he guesses he's got about 120 under his belt. They've been recorded by such artists as saxophonist Ernie Watts, guitarist Ritenour and singers Patti Austin and Phil Perry.

Perry, who included Grusin's "Woman" on his recent "The Heart of the Matter" Capitol album, and singer-lyricist Kate Markowitz, a regular Grusin collaborator, will be on hand at Le Cafe on Saturday to sing some of Grusin's tunes.

Naturally, Grusin writes the bulk of the material for his own projects. He began recording in the mid-'80s and two of his earliest albums have just been re-released on JVC Records. He is pleased with "No Borders," which embraces elements of funk, pop, reggae, African, Middle Eastern and other styles.

"Lately I've become very interested in the African beat, listening to people like Papa Wemba and Youssou N'Dour," Grusin said. "So I thought, why not do a funk tune, a ballad here and there, and other tunes, all based on these rhythms?"

Grusin will perform pieces from "No Borders" at Le Cafe on Sunday, and tonight will offer an acoustic mainstream jazz night, spotlighting Watts. Dale Jaffe, co-owner of the establishment, noted that the artist's wares are just the type he likes to feature.

"It's pretty exciting to have someone who brings with him such a great group of musicians, as well as music that is very different, very diverse, that will really stand out," Jaffe said.

In addition to composing, Grusin this year has traveled with a band featuring Perry and others to open a new concert venue in Japan. He took guitarist Ricardo Silveira and bassist Abraham Laboreil, among other musicians, to Germany to play a "No Borders" program. He has also made a pair of two-piano appearances with Dave Grusin.

What's it like to have a famous brother? "I like it. Wouldn't you?" he said. "I admit to some petty competition until I was 25 or 30, but now we're pretty tight."

Where and When

Who: Jazz pianist Don Grusin.

Location: The Room Upstairs at Le Cafe, 14633 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

Hours: 9 and 11 tonight through Sunday.

Price: Cover $15 Friday and Saturday, $12 Sunday. Two-drink minimum.

Call: (818) 986-2662.

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