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Inside Out There

Marc Sabatella is camped on a slippery musical slope. He refers to this location as the "outside shore" of today's jazz mainstream, and it's an apt metaphor. The 33-year-old Fort Collins-based pianist and bandleader isn't immersed in these waters, but he drinks deeply from them on a regular basis. Second...
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Marc Sabatella is camped on a slippery musical slope. He refers to this location as the "outside shore" of today's jazz mainstream, and it's an apt metaphor. The 33-year-old Fort Collins-based pianist and bandleader isn't immersed in these waters, but he drinks deeply from them on a regular basis.

Second Course, a CD issued last September on the Cadence Jazz imprint, confirms that Sabatella is a disarmingly natural yet alarmingly talented fellow who manages to make music that's fresh, spirited and original despite its relatively safe reference points and familiar instrumentation. Moreover, Gallery, a duet recording with renowned Fort Collins trumpeter Hugh Ragin that's scheduled to arrive in stores within the next several weeks, should further contribute to his reputation, as well as that of the region as a whole. Because of artists like Sabatella, many attentive critics are finally recognizing that there is more of interest in Colorado than snowboarding, beef and Broncos.

Sabatella is comfortable performing solo or with various configurations of a group he's dubbed the Spanish Inquisition; for his upcoming Denver appearance, the band is set to include drummer Tom Van Schoick, saxophonist Peter Sommer, bassist Joshua Pickenpaugh and special guests Ragin, saxophonist Lori Anderson and vocalist Wendy Fopeano. But no matter who's accompanying him, Sabatella does his best to continually challenge his musical assumptions, plumbing tradition for all it's worth even as he surfs the fringes for provocative expressions.

"Part of that has to do with the fact that I love to compose," Sabatella says. "By the time I was ten years old, I had about as much theory as a lot people have after a semester or two of college theory."

During these formative years, which were spent mainly in south Florida, the classically trained Sabatella was seduced by the whims of pop music. But even then he felt the urge to dig beneath the surface of sounds. "I would buy Barry Manilow songbooks, play the stuff the way it said in the songbook and realize, well, yeah, that works, but there's other stuff going on. You know: 'What about that violin part that's happening there?' and 'I could probably cover that, too'--and figuring out how to work out my own arrangements of these pop songs."

Such exercises eventually grew tiresome for Sabatella, and after he was drafted into his high-school jazz band, he understood why. "When I discovered there was a style of music that basically rewarded you for that kind of thing, that's pretty much all it took," he says.

Appropriately, Sabatella's earliest jazz-piano influence was Oscar Peterson, who seemed to make the best of the genre's two worlds. (While the well-rounded pianist was dedicated to risk--he once said that "the jazz medium should contain proper room for improvisation, or what we call the creative impact"--his solos were, in writer Dom Cerulli's accurate description, consistently "logical.") However, his inspiration equation also includes Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor and Herbie Hancock, whose work was the subject of a recent Westword critique ("The World According to Herbie," January 21). In a thoroughly amusing essay on his own Web site (, Sabatella confesses that he once dismissed Hancock as "too atonal," but he has since seen the light. Today he admits that "Herbie kind of changed my whole harmonic language."

The Spanish Inquisition, Sabatella's debut CD, showcases the pianist's command of his instrument even as it nods to another of his role models, hard-bopper Don Pullen. But his work on Second Course is even stronger. With a style that's disciplined yet inclusive, Sabatella navigates a wide range of stylistic channels, merrily be-bopping on "Monk's Got Rhythm" and "Bud-like," meditating on a bass line in the solo "Horsetooth Rock," and stretching out with a thoughtful yet energetic improvisation on "Dave and Sharon."

This propensity to steer away from the comfort of stylistic familiarity is further displayed by the covers on Course--two efforts written with the keyboard in mind and two others that seem like improbable additions to a pianist's repertoire. He sticks relatively close to the basics on "Everything That Lives Laments," a pensive, spiritual take on a tune by pianist Keith Jarrett, and "Can-Can," a piece by nineteenth-century French ballet composer Jacques Offenbach whose melody has survived the passing years very well indeed. But his rendition of bassist Charles Mingus's "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers," which was recorded live at KUVO-FM/89.3, is as inexplicable as it is auspicious; Sabatella's quartet boils the symphony of reeds down to its essence as faithfully as did the Mingus Big Band itself. "Aquarian Sound," meanwhile, emerges as a lean, modernist anthem. Penned by saxophonist David S. Ware, the song finds Sabatella admirably refusing to merely emulate the keyboard work of Matthew Shipp, who played on the original.

Gallery, a disc made for Cadence's sister label, CIMP, that pairs Sabatella with Ragin, is quite different in tone from its predecessor. "Right after we recorded the first piece for that session, the engineer turned to me and said, 'Is that as loud as you're going to play?'" Sabatella notes. "And I said, 'Well, yeah, wasn't it loud enough for you?' He said, 'You're just the softest pianist we've ever recorded.' So I guess my playing has developed a bit in the past year."

Though his musical open-mindedness is unsinkable, Sabatella is adamant about not going overboard into the avant-garde. "One thing I never want to be is monochromatic," he says. "I really treasure and really value having variety in my playing--from piece to piece and within a piece." Sabatella has been assisted in this regard by his collaborators, who include some of the area's finest jazz men and women. Ragin, of course, is a noted sideman for the likes of Anthony Braxton and David Murray who has several of his own albums awaiting release. But Greeley drummer Van Schoick and CU-Boulder students Sommer and Pickenpaugh are worthy of praise as well.

As for Sabatella, he's modest to a fault. In the midst of another essay that's accessible on his Web site, he claims, "I am just an ordinary jazz musician, playing the music I love, and I refuse to recognize boundaries on my sources of inspiration based solely on some closed linear perception of the jazz tradition." Nevertheless, this definition of Sabatella's "outside shore" doesn't tell the whole story. His playing is neither stagnant nor out of control--but it's also far from ordinary.

Marc Sabatella. 8 p.m. Friday, January 29, Houston Fine Arts Center, 7111 Montview Boulevard, $5-$8, 303-759-1797.

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