Saxophonist Keith Oxman remembers Denver in the ’80s as a hotbed of jazz. With more than fifty clubs at the time, gigs were easy to come by any day of the week.
“There were after-hours jobs,” Oxman says. “There were happy-hour jobs. There were nighttime jobs. There was one of those Januarys, which is typically a dead month — I think I had some 35 gigs that month. I mean, afternoon and evening gigs. I was so exhausted at the end of that.”
In 1984, Oxman started playing with drummer Paul Romaine, cornetist Ron Miles, pianist Andy Weyl and bassist Mark Simon, who were each gigging regularly with other jazz acts around town. Although the quintet started out getting together informally, the members eventually began rehearsing on a weekly basis, playing each other’s compositions.
Oxman initially came up with the name Jazz WORMS — an acronym based on the first letter of each of their last names — as a joke.
“I think I'd mentioned it to Paul,” Oxman says. “He said, 'Yeah, man, that's great,' and I said, 'No, I'm just kidding.' And then it ended up sticking, and I felt really not so good about that for a while, but it's fine. I mean, I'm 62 years old. How much damage can it cause a career at this point?”
The Jazz WORMS debut, Crawling Out, was released on singer James Van Buren’s label in 1987, but the group only performed a handful of times over the next few decades as the musicians got busier with their own careers. Oxman, a prominent educator at East High School, recorded with such jazz legends as Charles McPherson and Houston Person, while Miles went on to release a number of albums under his own name, including his recent Blue Note debut, Rainbow Sign.
Weyl has toured the world with the vocal group Rare Silk and worked with saxophonist James Moody and Tom Harrell, Benny Golson and Eddie Harris. Romaine and Simon co-founded the local jazz supergroup Convergence.
In 2014, the members of Jazz WORMS reunited for a show at Dazzle, and that performance inspired them to produce another album. Three years later, Thomas Burns, founder of local jazz imprint Capri Records, asked them to write fresh material. They rehearsed for a day, then spent two days recording songs at Colin Bricker’s Mighty Fine Productions for what would become Squirmin’. The album was released on March 19 on CD and digital platforms; vinyl copies will drop in the near future.
“It was really special,” Oxman says of the sessions. “I mean, we're all really good friends who care a lot about one another, and just to get back, knowing that we were actually going to finally do this again — it was really cool.”
Although Oxman says he enjoyed making the record with his friends, he doesn’t remember a lot about actually playing the music, since he'd been in the studio with famed tenor player Dave Liebman earlier that month and had performed a number of gigs with Liebman, as well. By the time he recorded with Jazz WORMS, he was pretty tired of going into the studio.
“It was funny, because I left that session just not feeling anything one way or the other,” Oxman recalls. “I mean, I went there, I was relaxed, that was fine. And I left, and I didn't think about that record that much.”
But with five of the area’s finest jazz players recording together, the results were bound to be excellent. Squirmin’ opens with Simon’s energetic “Launching Pad,” then continues with “Bu’s Box,” one of Romaine’s two songs inspired by his pet birds (the other is “Wheaty Bird,” which includes a few Charlie Parker quotes). The title refers to his bird’s cardboard box, which Romaine uses to propel the tune, while Miles and Oxman trade licks throughout the track.
Oxman penned the laid-back swinger “Joaquin” for a friend’s grandson, while buoyant blues number “The Chimento Files” is dedicated to Alan Chimento, one of Oxman’s colleagues at East. Weyl evokes Horace Silver's hard bop in “Lickity-Split” and contributes the album’s only ballad, “Balladesque.”
The group recorded the album so quickly that Oxman didn't have time to build up any expectations. When he finally heard a copy, his reaction was, "Oh, my God, this is a really great record."
"I could not believe how good that thing sounded," he says. "I was just so shocked that I didn't remember any of it."