Rhythm Methodist

If you caught last fall's season premiere of Melrose Place, you've already seen and heard Sebastian "Bash" Whittaker. The show's producers attended a concert by the talented jazz drummer and asked him to do a cameo as ... a drummer in a jazz club. Yes, he met Heather Locklear; sorry, National Enquirer, he has nothing but nice things to say about her.

The Houston native belongs to the neo-bop movement -- a group of young musicians born in the mid-'60s through early '70s that's eschewed pop influences in order to spread the gospel about the bebop revival. Bash merges the influences of bebop legends Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, combining the former's ensemble playing, subtlety and leadership abilities with the latter's melodic style. "I don't agree with people who say it's all been done before," says Bash. "The bebop vocabulary is barely 50 years old. How could we have figured [it] out?"

While many jazz drummers have led great bands, few have been noted for their songwriting. Bash says he's determined to be the exception, having studied piano so he could better understand theory and composition. And being an exception has never been a problem for Whittaker. Blinded at the age of one by retinal cancer, he began playing the drums at three. After attending college in New Jersey and playing in New York City, he left the Big Apple to move back to Houston, a daring move for a young jazz musician.

Given that the local jazz scene isn't exactly thriving -- as evidenced by the sparse attendance at the April concert by two-time Grammy nominee Kurt Elling and the fact that major jazz acts rarely appear in this top-five market -- Whittaker often performs outside the area. While he doesn't whine about Houston's jazz situation, he acknowledges the oddity of being a popular draw in Dallas while sometimes failing to lure 30 people on his home turf.

"I've been trying to figure out the jazz scene in Houston for a while," he says. "There aren't many venues that showcase jazz, particularly acoustic jazz. But I'm a doer, not a complainer. I'd rather work towards improving the scene."

-- Paul J. MacArthur

The Sebastian Whittaker Quartet performs at 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Cezanne, 4100 Montrose (upstairs), 522-9621.

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Paul J. MacArthur