Jazz for the Masses

Sometimes Houston is lucky if one nationally known jazz act is playing in town on a given weekend. Well, even though it's typically famine or famine 'round these parts, this weekend it's a feast. Five world-renowned jazz acts will make their way into Houston this weekend. And if you play your cards right (and skip work on Thursday) you might get to see all of them.

Don Byron -- One of the most significant jazz clarinetists of the past 30 years, Don Byron can't be pigeonholed. He traverses avant-garde, big band and jazz-rap with ease. And the results, though sometimes controversial, are rarely dismissible. Classically trained, Byron embraced jazz in the early '80s and brought to jazz clarinet an experimental style that is at once confusing and appealing. Since Byron is constantly shifting directions, it's important to know which Byron you're getting, lest you go in expecting an evening of jazz-rap only to hear klezmer music. On Thursday, Byron will be doing an educational performance, demonstrating the development of jazz through Warner Bros. cartoons by using the music of Raymond Scott and John Kirby (two of the composers for many of the '40s- and '50s-era cartoons). And on Friday, Byron revisits Bug Music, his tribute to music by Duke Ellington, Scott and Kirby. Byron's approach doesn't so much update the music as it does re-evaluate it. He constantly spins classical, free jazz and other influences into the mix. He's an eclectic improviser, so expect an interesting array of references. Don Byron plays Thursday, February 27, 11:15 a.m. and 1 p.m. Educational Event, Power Center, 12401 South Post Oak Road. Byron also plays Friday, February 26, at 8 p.m. at Cullen Theater, Wortham. Must make reservations for first show. For all tickets, call Da Camera at (713)524-7601 or (800)23-DACAM.

Count Basie Orchestra -- Though Count Basie died in 1984, the orchestra that bears his name has continued to tour. The leading figure in the development of swing (his rhythm section's emphasis on every beat is a swing staple), Basie was a master of the blues and understatement. Like Duke Ellington's memorial band, the Basieless orchestra misses the presence of its legendary leader, but it swings on in the Basie tradition with conviction. It can do so since all post-Basie players have been Basie alums, including Frank Foster and Thad Jones. Currently under the direction of trombonist Grover Mitchell, the orchestra still plays those killer charts filled with flair. And what the band lacks in complexity it makes up for in dynamics (a quiet passage is often followed by a giant splash of horns) and a sense of swing. Young swing wannabes, take note: Attending this concert might give you that added touch of soul most nouveau swingers are missing. The Count Basie Orchestra plays Friday, February 26, at 8 p.m. at the Moores Jazz Festival, Moores Opera House, University of Houston. Tickets are $25, $20 for students and seniors. Call (713)743-3313 for tickets.

Michael Brecker -- One of the most lethal soloists on the planet, saxophonist Michael Brecker's rise to stardom started with the legendary fusion group Dreams (which included older brother Randy and drum phenom Billy Cobham). From there it was working with Horace Silver, co-leading the Brecker Brothers, founding the pioneering acoustic-fusion group Steps Ahead and cutting tons of studio work. Brecker has appeared on albums by James Taylor, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell and hundreds of other jazz and pop dates and also played in Saturday Night Live's house band in the early '80s (back when they were amazing, and thus, never featured). Always a solid player, Brecker started to find his uniquely logical and challenging voice toward the end of the '70s. (A great example is his unbelievable solo on "Every Day I Thank You," from jazz guitarist Pat Metheny's 80/81 album.) Taking a modern approach to acoustic jazz, Brecker is not afraid to mix up harmonics or screw around with straight-forward blues. He's also such a technically proficient improviser, he can seem like he's heading for disaster, take a right turn and somehow manage to make sense of it all. Listening to Brecker is like riding on Space Mountain: It's an edgy experience. You don't always know what's next, but whatever it is might end up making you wet yourself. Michael Brecker plays Saturday, February 27, at 8 p.m. at the Moores Jazz Festival, Moores Opera House, University of Houston. Tickets are $25, $15 for students and seniors. Call (713)743-3313 for tickets.

Marvin Stamm -- You've heard Marvin Stamm's horn on Paul McCartney's classic "Uncle Albert" and many other pop songs by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Barbra Streisand and Lena Horne. A graduate of North Texas University, Stamm was the in-demand studio trumpeter from 1966 to 1982 but decided to leave the lucrative pop studio scene behind to dedicate more time to jazz. Stamm's credentials were already solid, as he had played with the Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and Benny Goodman orchestras, but there was always the suggestion that pop work might have commercialized him. It didn't. Stamm plays like a bebop master with fluid solos and a warm tone. Of course, Stamm, as any versatile studio musician, can play blues, ballads and barnburners with powerful grace, always with the help of his very accessible small bebop combo. Marvin Stamm plays Thursday, February 25, at College of the Mainland, 1200 Amburn Road, Texas City. The show is a jazz performance/clinic featuring Stamm and Bill Mays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Free admission. Call Sparky Koerner at (888)258-8859 ext. 347 or (409)938-1211 ext. 347 for ticket information. Stamm also plays Friday, February 26, and Saturday, February 27, at Cezanne's, 4100 Montrose, from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. $15. Call (713)522-9621 for information.

Greg Abate -- Saxophonist Greg Abate is one of those players who should break out at any moment but hasn't quite done it yet. A fiery bebop player, Abate gained a solid rep playing with the Ray Charles Orchestra in the '70s, yet he didn't choose to pursue a solo recording career until 1987. Instead, he acted as a sideman with various groups, most notably Artie Shaw's ghost band. Since going solo, the 42-year-old Abate has amassed a catalog of good bebop dates that show the influence of Charlie Parker, Phil Woods, Wayne Shorter and Paul Desmond. However, he is not an imitator as he's established his own sound and style, particularly on alto. Abate plays all four saxes, and though his maturation may have seemed a little slow to those not following his career in the Northeast, right now he's one of the most underrated talents on the jazz scene. Now is a good time to catch him before he makes the cover of Down Beat. Greg Abate plays Friday, February 26, and Saturday, February 27, at Ovations, 2436 Times Blvd., from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. $10. For tickets call (713)522-9801.

If you are going to attempt to make all five shows, I would say do it in this order: Take an extended lunch break on Thursday and catch Don Byron. Friday, see the Count Basie Orchestra, then catch Marvin Stamm. His appealing bebop is a good follow-up to Basie's simple yet elegant swing. Saturday, catch Michael Brecker, then see Greg Abate. While anyone will have trouble following Brecker, much less another saxophonist, Abate is more stylistically similar to Brecker than Stamm.

If, however, you prefer to mix your plate up, then see Abate after Basie and Stamm after Brecker.

If I had to pick just one show? Here's the cop-out question: What type of mood are you in? Want to tap your toes? Basie is the obvious choice. Want to groove out? Brecker. Want to hang out? Stamm.


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