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As the co-leader of the Houston Jazz Trio and the collective improvisational group Q, Tim Solook was one of the more visible jazz musicians in town. A first-call drummer and teacher for most of the past 15 years, Solook was synonymous with the local scene. So last November, when he announced he was moving back, at least temporarily, to his native New Jersey, his fellow players were, not surprisingly, taken aback.

Solook had his reasons, some practical (a lease expiring at the end of December), some personal (a family back home that needed attention). Then there was the professional reason: At 49, the drummer still had the desire to take another stab at the famed New York City scene.

"I loved working in Houston," Solook says. "I kept really busy for 15 years. [But] I just felt like, 'Okay, I'm going to try doing this now.' My heart was telling me, 'Yeah, go up to the New York area and see what's happening.' Just to get some new inspiration, you know? The only inspiration in playing I was getting was with the Houston Jazz Trio and with Q, but neither one was working that much."

Solook followed a girlfriend to Houston in 1986, arriving right in the middle of the oil bust. He planned to stick around for a year or so while his fiancée finished graduate school; he had professional credits back in Jersey, including a stint in the swing band Za Zu Zaz, so within months of landing here, he had secured gigs. He soon became a member of Paul English's group. When Solook's fiancée broke off the engagement a few months later, he considered moving back home, but English convinced him to stay. "Paul said, 'No, man, I'd love for you to stay for a little longer. We're really having fun playing, and I'm really glad you're here.' And I thought, 'You know, I am playing some really great stuff here. It's a really great band -- hey, what the hell? I'll stay for a little bit longer.' "

A little longer turned into a decade and a half. During that time Solook established himself as one of the most versatile drummers in Houston. He played in a fusion group fronted by pianist Joe LoCascio in the late '80s; he was a member of the Top 40 cover band Doppelganger for five years; and he did his share of studio work and teaching. Four years ago he formed the "free jazz" group Q with LoCascio, bassist Bill Miller and saxophonist Warren Sneed (see "Letter-Perfect," by Paul J. MacArthur, October 12, 2000).

Anyone who has heard Solook knows how inventive he can be. One night when Q played the standard "Body and Soul," the drummer -- yes, the drummer -- played the opening and ending melody. Another night, when working with the Tom Cummings Quartet, the group decided to play "In a Sentimental Mood," and it was Solook who suggested the band perform the Ellington classic as a double-time samba.

"He is a perfect accompanist and always plays with exquisite taste and control," says LoCascio. "He is not just a drummer but a complete musician….You could add that he is basically a motherfucker of a player."

"I think one of Tim's greatest assets as a musician is that he is a team player," adds Sneed. "He's always thinking in terms of how the group sounds as opposed to focusing on himself."

Solook's highest-profile gig was with the Houston Jazz Trio, which he formed in 1991 with guitarist Paul Chester and bassist Dave Nichols (who died in 1996 and was replaced by Dave Klingensmith). The group's straight-ahead style and laid-back, spacious sound was instantly appealing. Even more appealing was the group's unconventional repertory: obscure jazz tunes, pop songs and a few originals. HJT also avoided the numbingly familiar melody-solos-break-melody formula and sought ways to mix things up. Fans rewarded the group for its efforts. It was voted Best Jazz Group, by both critics and readers, in last year's Houston Press Music Awards.

Leaving behind HJT was anything but easy for Solook. "I took those guys by surprise," he says. "They didn't see it coming at all. I didn't want to let on [that] 'Yeah, I want to go up there,' because there's kind of a brotherhood there. Even though I didn't want to hide anything, every time we played I didn't want them to feel like, 'Oh wow, he's leaving.'…There was never any intention of screwing them or hurting them or doing anything negative towards those guys, because they're real close friends. This is something I just had to do for me at this point in my life."

Solook, who moved back to New Jersey right before Christmas, has come full circle. He's trying to land gigs and get some students, just like he did when he arrived in Houston 15 years ago. He's making new contacts and renewing old ones, but it's not as simple on the East Coast. While Solook was an A-list drummer in Houston, he's virtually at the other end of the alphabet in New York City. No one questions his talent, but getting noticed in a town where the top drummers include Lewis Nash and Jeff "Tain" Watts is not exactly easy. Hell, even the B- and C-list drummers can be monsters.

"That's the scary part," Solook says. "There's all these A-list guys that are blazing, and here are these guys that are unknowns, and they're good, too….I've gone out and checked out a number of young drummers, and they're all killer. I mean, they're just great drummers; if they were in Houston, they'd work all the time there, too….There's a standard in New York; that's why it's New York, and that's one of the reasons I like being here, because I love going out and hearing people like that."

While Solook has landed a few gigs, it's far too early to tell if his New York City experiment will pay off professionally. Solook says he has no reservations about moving back to Houston if things don't work out. "I want to play," he says. "If I can't play on a regular basis here … it's not like, 'Oh, I'm coming back, and I feel embarrassed because I went to the big city and didn't get to play.' Hey, I knew what it was going to be like when I came here….If it works, great; if it doesn't, I'll come back down to Houston."

As it is, Solook will still see his old town and friends on occasion. In fact, when Q plays a series of gigs this weekend, Solook will be back behind the drum kit, his band members having picked up his airfare. This is not some charity case, either, some morsel thrown Solook's way since he can't find a decent gig in the Big Apple. The Q brethren are convinced the drummer will be successful in New York City if he meets the right people.

Will Solook become the next big drummer in New York? Solook's take is what you'd expect from a good improviser: "I'm just going to play it by ear and let the story play out."

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Paul J. MacArthur