Going on Instinct : Bruce Eskovitz follows his heart to straight-ahead jazz and finds it 'intriguing and fulfilling.'

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

"Follow your bliss."

That's the expression coined by mythologist-scholar Joseph Campbell, and it could be interpreted as meaning that the source of human happiness is closely associated with discovering what you really want to do in life, and then doing it.

For years, from about 1984 to 1991, Bruce Eskovitz didn't do either.

The tenor saxophonist, who plays Saturday with a quartet at Jax, had long been an ardent lover of straight-ahead jazz. But from the mid-'80s to the early '90s, he became a practitioner of the pop side of jazz, where rock rhythms and easily digestible melodies serve as platforms for improvisation.

Eskovitz says now that he opted for the style because he was "looking for a sense of popularity." But even with a couple of albums that received fairly solid airplay, he worked only intermittently.

"I certainly wasn't becoming an overnight sensation doing the stuff," he says now. "And it seemed that saxophonists like Eric Marienthal and Brandon Fields could do that so much better than I could. I was feeling very unsatisfied."

No wonder. Eskovitz had been passionate about the mainstream jazz style espoused by such greats as Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt and John Coltrane since he was a teen-ager growing up in Los Angeles in the late '60s and early '70s. But he had put that art aspect of jazz aside in an effort to find commercial success and recognition. After awhile, the fact that he wasn't playing straight-ahead jazz left him confused.

"I began wondering why I wasn't playing that way," he says, and sees now that he had to go through the jazz/fusion phase as a period of growth--to see what he didn't want to do.

Then, three years ago, he changed. "I just came to a life decision to do what I wanted, which is to play straight-ahead jazz with a big sound on tunes with chord changes," Eskovitz says.

The payoff was immediate. "This music is a lot more of an honest vehicle of expression for me," he explains. "There's something about playing this music that's very intriguing and fulfilling."

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Eskovitz acknowledges that he got a big boost in improving his performance in the mainstream jazz arena by studying with Charlie Shoemake, the noted vibist who now lives in Cambria but who for years operated an improvisation studio out of his home in Sherman Oaks.

"Charlie showed me a lot of the nuts and bolts of this music," the sax man says. "I feel that there's a real depth to my understanding of music, and the be-bop style in particular, that I got from him."

Aware of the potential for exceedingly fast playing that the saxophone possesses, Eskovitz tries not to play as if he is getting paid by the note. "All saxophonists have the tendency to be button pushers to a certain extent, but really the virtuosity is in the choice, not the velocity," he says. "I'm trying to find a way to hit people on an emotional level and still be satisfied by what I do."

Walter Moore, co-owner of Roland & Associates, the public relations firm that books performers at Jax, feels that Eskovitz is indeed a man who is judicious in what he plays. "He offers a lot of melodic restraint," says Moore. "He's not overbearing. I think he's one of the best saxophone players we've come across in years."

At Jax, Eskovitz will be accompanied by a first-rate rhythm section of Stuart Elster (piano), Greg Eicher (bass) and Jack LeCompte (drums). The leader says that the program will spotlight classic pop standards and well-known jazz tunes.

Eskovitz will make a major step toward greater recognition in his chosen field when his album, "Bruce Eskovitz Plays Sonny Rollins," is released on Koch International Records in March.

The album, made in Los Angeles in late 1993, finds the sax man playing many of the best known tunes by Rollins.

"I was nervous about the recording," Eskovitz admits, "but I came in prepared. I feel good about it now."

WHERE AND WHEN

Who: Bruce Eskovitz.

Location: Jax Bar & Grill, 339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.

Hours: 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Saturday.

Price: No cover, no minimum.

Call: (818) 500-1604.

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