In the Hard Bop Mode : * In vogue for a decade, the rhythmic style fell from favor when jazz took a more free-form turn. But the HardBop Quintet is devoted to keeping it alive.
Creamy blends of saxophones and trumpets delivering alluring, bluesy melodies, followed by involved yet come-hither solos that are underpinned by make-you-move rhythms--these are just some of the earmarks of the music called hard bop.
From about 1955 to 1965, hard bop was the form of jazz in vogue, and it was played by most of the then-active greats, among them trumpeter Miles Davis, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, pianist Horace Silver and drummer Art Blakey. Hard bop fell from favor in the early-to-mid ‘60s as a less-structured, freer style of jazz, typified by saxophonists John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, came to the fore.
These days, hard bop is having something of a revival, and pianist Keith Saunders is one of its staunchest advocates.
“Hard bop was an extremely creative period, and it flew by so fast,” says Saunders, a former resident of Van Nuys who lives in Queens, N.Y. “I’m trying to find a way to take that great hard-bop thing of melody and harmony and put it in a new direction.”
And he’s succeeding. Saunders is the pianist and spokesman for the HardBop Quintet, a group of five New York City-area residents--the others are saxophonist Jerry Weldon, trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, bassist Bim Strasberg and drummer Ed Ornowski--devoted to playing originals and classics in the hard-bop mode.
Organized after four of its members toured Japan in 1990, the band plays tonight and Saturday at Jax in Glendale. It will also appear Saturday afternoon at the Pedrini Music Showcase Theatre in Alhambra and Sunday at the Hamlet in Cambria.
Saunders, 33, and his partners revere the tunes that exemplified hard bop, such as Silver’s “Nica’s Dream” and Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder.” Still, the musicians have chosen to focus on their own compositions.
“We’ll never get anywhere unless we do,” Saunders says frankly. “There are millions of bands that play tunes like ‘Nica’s Dream’ exactly as they were recorded. If we did that, we’d make the tune sound good, but anybody could buy a record by Horace and hear him play it.
“Whereas, if we play our own songs, they sound fresh while being steeped in the hard-bop tradition. Those compositions are what set us apart from other bands.”
The pianist says that often the selections contain interludes, which are colorful written sections played between solos, as well as shout choruses--intense, rhythmic passages that climax a number and are played by the entire ensemble.
“Those elements add to the music,” he says. “We need as much variety as we can get, to make the music interesting for the audience, and for us, too.”
Saunders looks to Silver as a major personal and group influence. “If I had to compare us to a classic group, the band we probably feel closest to is Horace’s. His songs have sublime melodies and are rhythmically very sophisticated. They make you feel good. He’s done for small-band jazz what Duke Ellington did for the orchestra. We’re definitely influenced by his sound.”
The HardBop Quintet does play a few Silver compositions, but only the more arcane ones, such as “The Outlaw” and “Cookin’ at the Continental.”
Members of the quintet have appeared with such notables as Harry Connick Jr. (Weldon), Toshiko Akiyoshi (Magnarelli) and Richie Cole (Saunders). The group is making headway in New York, where it performs in such rooms as Visiones and Birdland.
“The band is first-rate,” wrote Jennifer Dunning in the New York Times. “It’s a deft ensemble whose members work in tight complicity.”
Vibist Charlie Shoemake, who performs with bands at Hamlet in Cambria, hasn’t heard the group, but adds, “Anything that Keith is associated with is bound to be good. He’s a very exciting, creative player who really knows the tradition of jazz.”
Saunders hopes the California tour, and an upcoming CD the band is producing itself, will increase the quintet’s visibility. “We’re not famous now, but I expect that in 10 years, we’ll be known,” he says. “We are a band that has a distinct personality, that has a sound. I’m glad to be a part of it.”
WHERE AND WHEN
What: The HardBop Quintet at Jax, 339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.
When: 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. tonight and Saturday.
Cost: No cover, no minimum.
Call: (818) 500-1604.
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