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In Full Swing at 24 : In These Days of Rap and New Age Music, Evan Christopher Finds Inspiration in the Sounds of Yesterday While Looking Ahead in His Presentation

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s a hot August night inside the Fullerton Hofbrau and, as clarinetist Evan Christopher takes the bandstand, it’s about to get hotter.

As he leads his combo through Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” a few couples step across the slippery dance floor while servers hustle among the tables with steaming plates of food and steins of beer.

Breaking into his improvisation, Christopher--his shoulders pinched, instrument pointed skyward--bears down on the familiar tune, sliding around the scales before climbing into an assertive wail that he holds for several, steamy moments.

The nearly packed house breaks into cheers and applause. Beaming, the clarinetist offers his instrument and a wide smile to the throng, before continuing with a program of music from the ‘20s and ‘30s.

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Christopher has brought this kind of excitement not only to his own bands but to popular singer-keyboardist A. J. Croce’s ensemble, a group that concentrates on classic American pop tunes of 50 and more years ago (it was the hit of the Southern California Jazz Festival earlier this summer). He is also a member of saxophonist Tom Kubis’ Dixieland project, Swing Savant, and the Misbehavin’ Jazz Band. As KLON-FM jazz disc jockey Ken Borgers says in the notes to Christopher’s recent self-produced CD, “He has a wonderful ability to get swinging so hard, you can’t imagine anything hotter.”

“I’ve seen him come up through the ranks,” says arranger and bandleader Kubis, “and he has unbelievable talent and charisma. The electricity he brings to the stage is not to be missed. I hope he doesn’t forget me when he really gets famous.”

It’s easy to believe these accolades listening to the somewhat redundantly titled CD, “Evan Christopher Plays Classic Jazz Classics.” On it, the clarinetist brings spark and fire to selections from Waller, King Oliver, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter and W. C. Handy, playing in a way that makes a direct link to their era.

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The hard thing to believe is Christopher’s age. He’ll celebrate his 25th birthday later this month. How is it in this era of rap, heavy metal and New Age music that someone still in his 20s turns to bygone times for his musical inspiration?

As a child, “I was never really aware of pop music,” he says, “I didn’t listen to it on the radio--it never really grabbed me.”

But a collection of Louis Armstrong recordings from the late ‘20s owned by his father, a casual banjo picker, did make an impression.

“They were just jams, wonderful short songs with things I hadn’t heard before. Johnny Dodds was the clarinetist. There was something about that era that attracted me, everything seemed more elegant--the picture on the cover, reading the liner notes--it all seemed very classy.”

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Christopher began piano lessons at age 8 and says his this is the spacefor tlink and windo first interest was classical music. But when he was about 11, he first heard Armstrong and began to pursue others of that era, mainly to develop clarinet skills.

“I listened to things like what Artie Shaw did during the mid- to late-'30s. That was the first music I used to learn the clarinet. It was easy to hear the instrument (in that setting) and it was easy to imitate what was being done. I don’t know what that music touched but it all became very exciting for me.”

The Long Beach native played his instrument in junior high and high school bands, though he says he learned more of his technique playing by ear. He spent his senior year at the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, where he studied classical music and played in chamber groups.

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After a stint at USC, he returned to Long Beach for college, graduating with honors with a degree in music from Cal State Long Beach in 1993. During that time, he began to play casual dates, getting his feet wet in the performance world. He also spent some time at Golden West College, where he studied arranging with Kubis and became involved with Swing Savant.

He met Croce (the son of late pop songwriter-singer Jim Croce) at the San Diego club Croce’s, where he would sit in with the house band. When Croce signed to do his first recording for Private Music in 1993, he called Christopher to play clarinet. That August, the band went out on tour.

“Our first job was to open for Ray Charles at Wolf Trap (Farm Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia) in front of 8,000 people, my first time in with a crowd that size. I didn’t really know some of the music that well yet, so I taped a cheat sheet to my music stand. But by the time we went on I realized the sheet was just too far away to read so I had to wing it. But it all worked out great.”

Since then, Christopher has toured Europe with Croce as well as the United States and Canada. He continues to be a member of the band.

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“It was a great time, but I started to get a little tired of the routine. We were promoting the album, so the show didn’t change much from night to night. I’m happy to work with any configuration, but if there’s no variety, things start to get me down.”

That need for variety is apparent in Christopher’s own work.

“Each time I put a group together, I try to focus on something different. The group we have now at the Hofbrau and the tunes we do are pretty standard, but we’re trying to approach them differently. Stylistically, my groups have all worked within the constructs of pre-swing styles: different schools of New Orleans jazz, early swing music like Benny Goodman and Ellington from the late ‘20s.”

And the clarinetist, who also sings and plays saxophone on occasion, wants to put some variety in his presentation as well.

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“There’s a trend toward visual orientation now in art and music. So my next step is to pursue something more of a multimedia approach, to find a way of representing the music, not only by performing it, but by combining it with early dance styles and to use audio-video footage of great jazz musicians, great rhythm tap-dancers and the great literature of the period.”

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He sees the members of his generation now being drawn to the classic American songs, and for the same things that first attracted him.

“What’s going on is not so much a revival, but a broader interest in art and music history. People are starting to be more open toward different influences,” he said. “We tend to forget where things come from--the audience for popular music will think something is brand new even if it was done 50 years ago. But that’s OK. They’ll make the connection later.”

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* Evan Christopher & the Hot Jazz All Stars, with guitarist Brad Roth, trumpeter Bryan Shaw, bassist Benjamin May and drummer Frank Fakinos, play the Fullerton Hofbrau, 323 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton. Thursdays, 7:30-10-30 p.m. No cover. (714) 870-7400.


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