Round the Corner

Colorado's jazz artists stand up against their big-city counterparts.

Seriously strung-out jazz fiends -- you know who you are -- will never confuse Denver with the Big Apple or the Big Easy. But America's native art form purrs along quite nicely at 5,280 feet, thank you very much, and the jazz-and-cocktails faithful here needn't endure New York's break-the-bank cover charges or New Orleans's withering humidity. Denver jazz musicians also record, and while they may not get the recognition that has come to homegrown stars like tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson and Grammy-winning singer Dianne Reeves, who now belong to the world, their work speaks, sings and plays well for the state of jazz at altitude.

Herewith the evidence -- an informal (and by no means complete) survey of recent Denver-produced and Denver-connected CDs that demonstrate the diversity and high skill of some local performers who've flatted a fifth or two in their time:

The hard-bopping quintet that calls itself Convergence converges only occasionally, but they came up together more than a decade ago, and four of the members -- pianist Eric Gunnison, trumpeter Greg Gisbert, drummer Paul Romaine and bassist Mark Simon -- remain rock-solid regulars in Denver clubs. On Hometown (produced by Tom Burns's Denver-based Capri label), they reunite with Aurora-born, New York-based saxophonist John Gunther, who, like Romaine, is an alumnus of Woody Herman's big band. The five old friends have occasionally gone into the studio (check the bins for 1993's Big Lunage, released under Gunther's and Gisbert's names), traveled some (in 1997 they lit up Greenwich Village's famous Blue Note club with their complex arrangements and fiery solos) and continued to grow musically. The new CD, featuring five Gunther originals and one by Romaine, represents the group at its best: unfettered, daring and exuberant. Jazz critic Ira Gitler writes that Convergence has "come to a deep understanding of jazz's cortex while developing an adventuresome spirit within the music's ongoing tradition."

On Hometown, the musicians pay homage to their Denver-area roots -- Mom's Cafe, at 4018 Tennyson Street, gets a special nod -- but these splendid musicians have been around and paid big-league dues. Pianist Gunnison, tabbed the group's "voice of reason," was the great vocalist Carmen McRae's accompanist for the last five years of her life; Gisbert, a dazzling ex-prodigy who grew up in Littleton and began sitting in at El Chapultepec at age sixteen, made his bones in Buddy Rich's orchestra and the New York big bands of Maria Schneider, Toshiko Akiyoshi and John Fedchock, among others; Detroit-born bassist Simon has lived here for fifteen years, toured with McRae and has played with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Rosemary Clooney to Randy Brecker.

On the bandstand, they understand each other as only old friends can.

The introspective trumpeter Ron Miles (once a member of Convergence's predecessor, the Jazz W.O.R.M.S.) seems poised for a major breakout. His new release, Heaven (on Boulder's Sterling Circle label), is a collection of astonishing duets with cutting-edge guitarist Bill Frisell, an impressionist master who combines the impatient energies of rock with highly inventive jazz harmonies. The material here is eclectic, to say the least -- Thelonious Monk's angular "We See" plays bedfellow to Hank Williams's country-Western chestnut "Your Cheatin' Heart," the Bob Dylan anthem "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and seven originals. But all of the tracks have one thing in common: the lovely interplay between Miles's subdued, often mournful, trumpet and Frisell's ever-surprising, multi-hued guitar work. No breakneck tempos or circus tricks required. On the Miles-Frisell axis, the trumpeter points out, "I think we share a fondness for striking melody, patience and the importance of individual timbre." Fans of Miles's fluid 1996 CD My Cruel Heart will hear another leap forward here.

Miles tours Europe and plays major jazz festivals these days, but he remains a mainstay on the Denver jazz scene and a pillar of the music department at Metropolitan State College. Lucky students, those: They're learning harmony, improvisation and jazz history from a man whom JazzTimes's Bill Milkowski calls "a phenomenally gifted composer-trumpeter."

There's nothing like a big band in full cry to stir the soul, and on jazz radio station KUVO's new compilation disc, Live at the Oasis: Volume 5, the twenty-piece Ultraphonic Jazz Orchestra blows the doors off a Willie Maiden cooker called "A Little Minor Booze." Led by percussionist John Akal, the UJO descends from an earlier Denver big band, Joel Kaye's Neophonic Jazz Orchestra, which held Stan Kenton's torch aloft on Monday nights at Vartan's for eight years. The Ultraphonic, Akal tells us, means to speculate on the next chapter in the Kenton saga -- "if he were still alive and his band were still in existence." That means ever more complex arrangements and forward-looking tunes (Pat Metheny to Dale DeVoe) and plenty of high-octane flash. The KUVO CD -- which also features splendid live in-studio tracks by bassist Ken Walker's sextet, local girl-made-good Dianne Reeves (a wrenching version of "Misty") and Westword's Best of Denver pick for jazz singer of the year, Teresa Carroll -- is available only as a premium for the public-radio station's pledge-drive contributors. But you can catch the Ultraphonic Jazz Orchestra live on Tuesday nights at Los Cabos II, 15th and Curtis Streets. Come ready for adventure.

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