Saxophonist Harvey Wainapel fell under the spell of jazz in his early teens. He was attracted to the art form in the first place, he figures, for the same reasons that keep him going.
"Jazz is a very compelling art form, a combination of the intellect and the heart," said Wainapel (pronounced WINE-apple). "It's about a reflection of who you are as a person, who you are at a given moment. When the playing is going good, I feel like the freest person in the world."
Wainapel is an accomplished musician who has released two albums. His work has been acclaimed in such magazines as Down Beat and JazzTimes and by such noted musicians as Joe Lovano and Jimmy Heath. And his playing tends to mirror what drew him to jazz: Soloing on tenor, alto or soprano saxophones, he stresses warmth and deep feelings while also making statements that are thoughtful and profound. His sense of swing is strong.
Such greats as John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker are cited by Wainapel as influences. But, unlike them, Wainapel said, he is not an innovator.
"I'm just playing what I hear, trying to learn from my sources and add something to the art, bring my own bat to the sandlot," he said. "My goal is to get my feelings out and do that in a way that's musically coherent."
Wainapel, who plays tonight at Steamers Cafe in Fullerton, released his debut album, "At Home on the Road," in 1992 and a follow-up last year, "Ambrosia: The Music of Kenny Barron."
"I've always loved Kenny's compositions and felt they were under-recorded, except by Kenny," Wainapel said.
When the saxophonist got an opportunity to make an album with the Dutch Metropole Orchestra in 1995, he chose Barron as a focal point. He transcribed several of the pianist's tunes from recordings, had Barron check them for accuracy, then enlisted Studio City-based arranger Jeff Beal to turn them into a suite, which was recorded by the 50-piece Metropole in Hilversum, the Netherlands.
"I needed more numbers to finish the CD, and since Kenny and I are both deeply into Brazilian music, I asked him if he had any new tunes, and he sent me 11 or 12 and told me to take my pick," he said. "That he would offer me these was a great honor."
Wainapel, who lives in San Francisco, was born in 1951 in Middletown, N.Y., the son of survivors of a Nazi concentration camp. He learned jazz by playing along with records he heard on New York City radio stations, which he listened to at home in Ellenville, N.Y.
"The great thing about practicing with the radio is that you get to play with everybody and they can't tell you how bad you sound."
He spent two years at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he met such future colleagues as Lovano and John Scofield, then moved to Europe in 1974, working in the Netherlands and in Germany. After a stint in New York, he toured with Ray Charles for 10 months and then settled in the Bay Area, where he's lived since 1982.
Wainapel teaches at Sonoma State University and at the summer Stanford Jazz Workshop. Though it's sometimes difficult to get playing engagements, that's nothing compared with the overall rewards of the music life.
"The hard part is where business and music intersect, all the business work you have to do--sending out press packages, making phone calls--just to try and get heard," he said. "But I love music, and I'm glad I chose it. Without it, I'd be a much sadder person."
* The Harvey Wainapel Quintet, with Cecilia Coleman, plays tonight at Steamers Cafe, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton. 8 p.m. Two-item minimum. (714) 871-8800.