They're Young, Gifted and Gigging : Zane Musa, a Name to Remember, Opens New Jazz Talent Series

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It wasn't the usual jazz club crowd. Nor was it the time of day when one expects to hear the swinging sounds of night music. High noon on a Sunday at most jazz clubs is generally greeted by empty chairs and locked doors.

So when four young players walked on stage at Catalina Bar & Grill before a nearly full-house audience that included families with young children, a few grandparents and a smattering of Generation X-ers, some of whom had probably never seen the inside of a jazz room, there was a feeling that something pretty special was about to take place.

And it was. A group of teenage musicians was getting the rare opportunity to demonstrate their wares on the stage of one of the country's best-known jazz clubs.

Leading the band was Zane Musa, a tall, slender saxophonist, who has barely made it to the outer edge of Generation X. Dapper and self-assured in a nifty, gray double-breasted suit, he is, at 17, not yet old enough to legally drink.

But he is old enough, and good enough, to play with the big guys, a fact that became immediately apparent to the enthusiastic audience.

Musa and his associates--pianist Art Hirahara, bassist Bobby Brennan and drummer Jonathan Chengary, all fellow students at CalArts in Valencia--were performing at Catalina in the kick-off event of the Young Artists Concert Series, which will offer monthly showcase performances by up-and-coming jazz players.

There was nothing underdeveloped about the quartet's program, however. In complexity and technical demand, it was not all that different from what one might hear in an evening performance by a major jazz name: Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring," John Coltrane's "Impressions" and the standard "Cherokee," a piece often used by jazz players to test each other's mettle.

Call it a program with a 9.5 level of difficulty. Call their score a 9.9.

The audience was less concerned with the music's challenges than with its communicativeness. Warm and supportive, they applauded every solo, tapping their feet in rhythm and responding with open, honest exhilaration. Occasionally, in a gesture reflecting the easygoing atmosphere of the event, one of the players' relatives would sneak to the edge of the bandstand for some close-up picture-taking of the performance.

The musicians, after a few opening moments of nervousness, soon tapped into the room's good vibes, listening to one another's solos with smiling attentiveness, responding to the applause with ingenuous grins.

Musa soared through everything with startling ease and imagination. Bebop-based, he also has clearly been influenced by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, as well as more contemporary saxophonists such as Michael Brecker and Kenny Garrett. But "influenced" only in a rudimentary sense, since Musa's great strength--even at this very early stage in his musical career--is his ability to bring originality and personal vision to almost every note he plays.

Unfortunately, he doesn't get to do it very often--not, at least, in front of a paying audience.

Like many young jazz players from Los Angeles, Musa does most of his performing in classes (he is a scholarship student in CalArts excellent jazz program), jam sessions and while practicing at home.

"This was really our first actual gig together," said the soft-spoken, reticent young man. "Of course we jam a lot, and we play in other bands together. But getting work is a slow thing right now. You have to have the right connections, I guess."

And neither Musa nor the players in his quartet have been around long enough to make the kind of connections that lead to regular employment. (He doesn't have a recording contract).

"I just try to play in as many situations as I can," he said. "It's always good to play with guys who are older and more experienced. If I can't make much money, I can always get more experience, learn new tunes--stuff like that."

Barbara Brighton, who is producing the Young Artists series, is well aware of the problems facing young jazz musicians.

"I first decided to do these programs," she explained, "because I knew that it wasn't happening for young players, for the talented kids in their teens or early 20s. . . . And I also knew that it was incredibly ironic, because there's this tendency for record companies to be looking for younger players."

Her goal with the Young Artists concerts is to create a venue that will not only provide a forum for young players, but that also will make it possible for very young listeners to have an easy entry into the jazz experience.

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And for the youngsters in Musa's audience, it was very exciting, indeed. Sitting on the edges of their chairs, staring in rapt attention, they seemed mesmerized by the music. At one point, when Musa and Chengary accelerated through a roaring saxophone/drums duet, the kids joined their parents--and everyone else--in spontaneous applause and cheers.

"I knew we'd have no problems finding talented young musicians," Brighton said, "because there's so much incredible talent out there, just waiting for a chance to be heard."

Even with her plethora of available choices, Musa was an obvious early candidate for the series--a perfect reflection of Brighton's desire to demonstrate that the cream of the crop of young players was more than ready to compete at the top levels of performance.

There has been a continuing buzz around the local jazz community about the talented saxophonist, who was born in Panorama City and who graduated last year from Van Nuys High School's Performing Arts Magnet. In 1994 and 1995, he was selected first saxophonist in the Southern California Grammy All-Star High School Jazz Band, and he has received awards from the International Assn. of Jazz Educators and the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts. In November, he will be a candidate in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition.

Less known is the fact that, before he even reached his teens, Musa was an accomplished tap dancer. At the age of 10, he won TriStar Film's National Tap Challenge and was invited to dance at Harlem's Apollo Theatre and perform with Gregory Hines on Phil Donahue's show.

"I haven't tapped in a long time," Musa said. "But I'm sure it helped me with my playing by making me listen more carefully, because there's a lot of music involved in tap dancing. You have to understand rhythms and time, which is the same thing you have to do with jazz."

Future programs in the Young Artists series appear to be just as engaging as the Musa program. The next event, which takes place April 28, features the Anthony Wilson Octet. Wilson, 22, a guitarist and the son of veteran bandleader Gerald Wilson, was a recent winner of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz/BMI Composers Award.

* The schedule of events in the Young Artists Concert Series: April 28, the Anthony Wilson Octet; May 19, the World Stage Jr. All-Stars; June 23, the Thelonious S. Monk Institute of Jazz West Coast Combo; July 2-3, the Washington Prep Jazz Band; July 28, the John Daversa Trio; Aug. 25, the Sheila Gonzales Band. All ages are welcome. Cover charges will range from $6 to $8; under the age of 12, free, students with I.D., half price. Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Ave., Hollywood; (213) 466-2210.

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