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Time To Make Room For Checkfield

July 22, 1986|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

SAN DIEGO — Ron Satterfield and S. John Archer, veterans of the local jazz nightclub scene, could be onto something big.

The duo, known as Checkfield, has just issued an album of keyboard and guitar instrumentals, "Water, Wind and Stone," on the nationally distributed American Gramaphone label.

If the label's aggressive attempt at shattering Windham Hill's monopoly on the "New Age" jazz market is as successful as preliminary efforts indicate, Checkfield might achieve the same level of popularity as George Winston and Alex DeGrassi.

Several years ago, Windham Hill made New Age music a part of every yuppie's musical vocabulary. The light, breezy pop-jazz of pianist Winston, guitarist DeGrassi, and a dozen or so other instrumentalists proved ideal for calming nerves frayed by a hectic day in the office or a dip in the stock market.

But some competitive rumblings have been emanating from Omaha, where American Gramaphone has spent the last decade formulating a New Age sound of its own, called "fresh aire."

There's a discernible difference, Archer said.

"I think New Age music, as defined by Windham Hill, has just opened the door," he said. "It's the start of something rather than the end of something.

"And what Checkfield and the other American Gramaphone acts have done is take things one step further by incorporating elements of folk, classical and rock into the basic jazz format, and coming up with music that really applies to our whole generation."

But if the Windham Hill sound is what nightclubbers like with cocktails and conversation, "fresh aire" music might be what they prefer in the solitude of their own homes. There's a lot more melody, a touch more flash, and the unspoken requirement that you listen rather than simply hear.

Already, American Gramaphone acts like Mannheim Steamroller, guitarist Ron Cooley and multi-instrumentalist Ric Swanson are starting to crack the national jazz charts with a series of digitally mastered albums, of which Checkfield's "Water, Wind and Stone" is the latest.

The album is highlighted by wandering melodies, varying rhythms and structures, and intricate keyboard and guitar solos alternately performed by Satterfield and Archer, both--appropriately enough--in their early 30s.

The album is, in many ways, the culmination of a 10-year musical relationship that has grown and developed primarily in the recording studio.

The two met in the early 1970s, when they shared music classes at Mesa College.

After drifting apart, they bumped into each other in a supermarket in 1976 and began to work together again.

The first incarnation of Checkfield was an easy-listening piece the duo put together to record a song about San Diego, "The Light of the City," for the second "Homegrown" album released by radio station KGB-FM (101.5).

Within a year, a female vocalist was hired and Checkfield became a regular on the local nightclub circuit, playing a mix of copy tunes and originals written by Satterfield and Archer.

But by the early 1980s, the live group ceased to exist. Satterfield established himself as a jazz pianist performing with such notable locals as Joe Marillo. Archer became a producer for the Network Production Music Library, which markets background music to film companies and television networks.

The Checkfield name was kept alive only in the studio the two had built, where they recorded a series of demonstration tapes with which they hoped to land a recording contract.

In 1982, a small independent label in Los Angeles, Pausa Records, offered to release a Checkfield album--but only if they dropped the easy-listening and folk numbers and concentrated on jazz.

"We agreed and within a year they issued our first album, 'Spirit,' which consisted solely of the melodic jazz we're still playing today," Satterfield said.

Although their musical direction was determined by an outside force, Satterfield and Archer opted to continue in the jazz idiom once their contract with Pausa ran out.

After several years of sending out more demo tapes, they landed their current deal last fall with American Gramaphone--and all of a sudden found themselves championed as the latest disciples of the "fresh aire" sound that the label is built around.

"People need labels, and I guess that's as good as any right now," Archer said. "But we want to take things even further: By the end of the year, we hope to reactivate Checkfield as a live group, with a multimedia format that utilizes other players and featured soloists, a string section, computerized tracks, tapes, slides, projections, videos and special effects.

"I think that's where the future of music is. People want to be entertained, and now that we've found our audience, we want to give them a whole lot more than some guy standing up on stage in a grungy pair of jeans and playing guitar for 45 minutes."

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