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Wanderlust Over : Star Jazz Saxophonist Settles Down With Own Group in San Diego : THOMAS K. ARNOLD

December 26, 1987

DEL MAR — For a guy who's considered to be one of the brightest stars on the local jazz scene, saxophonist Mark Lessman has taken more than his share of musical detours in the 13 years since his nightclub debut.

Between gigging around San Diego and North County with a succession of his own jazz ensembles, Lessman has served time in a lounge band and teamed up with former John Mayall sideman Johnny Almond in a rhythm-and-blues revue that played nothing but vintage soul tunes like "Mustang Sally" and "My Girl."

He's backed a torch singer in Las Vegas and performed old show tunes in Reno. And he's even spent a year playing straight-ahead rock 'n' roll with San Diego nightclub veterans Private Domain.

"When it comes to music, I guess I'm not a purist," Lessman, now 30, said with a laugh. "I'm only a purist in the sense that I have no tolerance for bad music. But I'm not a purist in the sense that I only play jazz.

"I happen to enjoy many different kinds of music, so I don't see why I should limit myself. From time to time, I like to do something else besides jazz."

Today, however, Lessman's days as a musical wanderer appear to be over. For the last year, he's been playing original pop-jazz compositions with four other local musicians in the Mark Lessman Band.

The group regularly performs in night spots like the Bella Via in Cardiff, where they'll be tonight, the B Street Cafe, where they'll be Jan. 1, and the Cannibal Bar at the Catamaran Hotel (Jan. 6). And when they're not playing live, they're recording in the studio, laying down tracks for an album Lessman hopes to release early next year on his own label.

"The time has come to get on vinyl and hit the airwaves to really let people know I'm out here," Lessman said. "I've paid my dues for many years, but I needed to do that in order to mature as a musician.

"And because I've done so many different things, I feel I've developed my own sound, my own style. Instead of listening to Spyro Gyra and saying, 'I can do that,' I can draw on other influences besides contemporary jazz.

"My music blends together the technical aspects of traditional jazz, the feeling of rhythm-and-blues, and the power of rock 'n' roll--all within the pop-jazz framework.

"And that makes me a lot less one-sided than most of the other people doing this type of music."

A Del Mar resident since he was 13, Lessman started playing the saxophone two years later and immediately joined his San Dieguito High School jazz band.

Also in the band at the time, he recalled, were three other future San Diego jazz stars: Peter Sprague, Tripp Sprague and John Leftwich.

After band practice, Lessman said, this "Gang of Four" frequently got together on their own to play be-bop.

"We had a real fun time, just jamming away and learning from each other," he said.

Upon graduating from high school in 1974, Lessman temporarily gave up jazz and accepted a job with a local lounge band "because I was determined to get out of washing dishes and busing tables for a living."

Three years later, Lessman moved to Santa Cruz to study music with noted jazz instructor Dave Liebman, and in 1981 he returned to San Diego to put together an acoustic jazz quintet that performed mostly in tiny jazz clubs like Moonlight Gardens in Encinitas and Chuck's Steakhouse in La Jolla.

A year later, Lessman was reunited with the Sprague brothers in the jazz-fusion group Manzanita before calling a second timeout from jazz in 1981 to form a rhythm-and-blues nightclub act with Johnny Almond.

He subsequently put together his own fusion group, the Mix, and resumed plying the local jazz nightclub circuit until 1983, when he gave up jazz yet a third time to become a musician-for-hire in Las Vegas and Reno showrooms.

In 1985, Lessman returned to San Diego and for more than a year, played rock 'n' roll with Private Domain.

"But eventually, I got kind of worn out playing with them because the volume was so loud and my heart wasn't really in rock 'n' roll," Lessman said.

"I was anxious to get back into jazz, so in April, 1986, I left and formed my current band. And this time, I have no plans to wander off again.

"After experimenting with so many other kinds of music, playing jazz has never felt this good."

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