SAN DIEGO — In May, saxophonist Hollis Gentry III received one of the biggest blows of his professional life.
He was unceremoniously fired from Fattburger, the popular jazz-fusion group he had founded a year and a half before, due to disagreements with other band members.
The dismissal came on the eve of Fattburger's landing a national recording contract--a goal Gentry, 32, had been striving for since he began playing San Diego nightclubs in 1970.
Seven months later, Gentry still harbors a fair amount of bitterness toward his former band mates.
"But looking back, it's just as well that what happened, happened," he said with a shrug. "The things that led to my dismissal built up over many months, and it's difficult to work with people you don't respect."
Gentry didn't waste much time nursing his bruised ego. Within weeks, he had formed a new band, Hollis Gentry's Neon, that includes four of this town's most talented jazz musicians.
Keyboardist Dave Wallace, 31, was Manhattan Transfer's musical director and has recorded and toured with the likes of Kenny Loggins--when Wallace was 14--Melissa Manchester and the Hues Corporation.
Guitarist Ron Veliz, 33, studied under Joe Pass and has performed with the Platters, Bloodstone and Buddy Miles.
Bassist Peter Skrabrak, 29, is a native of Czechoslovakia who has toured throughout Europe and the United States.
Percussionist Johnny Castaneda, 30, is a veteran session player from Los Angeles who for years played with the Happy Wanderers, one of Southern California's most popular jazz trios.
This time, however, Gentry is the undisputed leader, musically as well as logistically.
"My new band's music is more centered around me," Gentry said. "It's somewhere between Pat Metheny and Return to Forever. There are elements of pop-jazz, but there's also room for improvisation.
"Compared with the music I was doing with Fattburger, the music I'm doing with Neon is brighter and more optimistic-sounding.
"And to me, it's a lot more happening."
From the start, Gentry sought to guide his new band along the same path to stardom that he had traveled with Fattburger. Like Fattburger, Hollis Gentry's Neon immediately became a regular at all the top local jazz nightclubs, including Bellavia in Cardiff, the Old Pacific Beach Cafe and the Catamaran in Mission Beach.
Like Fattburger, Neon spent most of its early months in the studio, working out new compositions and recording demonstration tapes.
And like Fattburger, Neon is getting a shot at the big time. Next month, the band will record a full-length album that will be released in the spring by Optimism Records, a nationally distributed jazz label based in Los Angeles.
Ironically, that's the same record company that issued Fattburger's breakthrough album last summer.
"The success of this group has been quite pleasing, especially since everything has happened so fast," Gentry said. "Over the years, I have been through a lot of different situations, each with their own degree of success.
"And building up a track record is important when you're developing your musical character. You learn that nothing stays the same forever; there comes a time when you have to move on.
"Generally, though, whenever I leave one project and move on to a new one, I see an improvement, both in my career and in my life. And Neon is no exception."
Gentry's track record is quite impressive. Over the last 16 years, he has played with virtually every top jazz musician in town. He has opened concerts for the Dramatics and the Isley Brothers, and toured with soul balladeer Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra and with legendary alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderly.
For the last five years--first with trumpeter Bruce Cameron, then with Fattburger, and now with Neon--he has helped make jazz-fusion the hottest item on the local night-life menu.
"After years of being a fad, I think fusion has finally earned its place in the family of jazz styles, along with be-bop, Dixieland, swing, and all the others," Gentry said.
"Fusion is as strong, and as lasting, as any of those other styles. It just happens to be the newest--but it's still made up of some very solid elements of music, and I'm convinced it will be around for a long, long time."