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All-Star Musicians Can't Stop Meeting Like This : Jazz: For seven summers, friends Patrice Rushen, Ndugu Chancler, Alphonso Johnson and Ernie Watts have gotten together to tour. They play Hollywood Bowl Sunday.

August 25, 1990|ZAN STEWART

All-star bands in the jazz business are just like the seasons: They come, and then they go.

These groups, assembled by promoters for the summer jazz-festival circuit in the United States, Europe and Japan, usually consist of a handful of name players who may or may not have played together before and who, more than likely, won't play together again.

The Meeting is one group that runs counter to form.

Organized by Festival Productions' Darlene Chan in 1983 as "Stars of the '80s" for concerts at the Playboy Jazz Festival and a few Kool Jazz Festivals, keyboardist Patrice Rushen, drummer Ndugu Chancler, bassist Alphonso Johnson and saxman Ernie Watts (who replaced original saxophonist Tom Scott before the group performed) have found enough in common--musically and personally--to endure the test of time.

One reason is that the players are friends. (They will appear Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl with Grover Washington Jr., Joe Zawinul's Syndicate and the Stanley Clarke-George Duke band.)

"When we get together to play, it's not like a job," said Chancler, currently appearing in the Rushen-led band on CBS' "The Midnight Hour," during a round-table discussion at Le Cafe in Sherman Oaks earlier this week.

"It's like a family," said Watts, the Grammy-winning saxophonist who is working with Lee Ritenour, Charlie Haden's Quartet West and Doc Severinsen's "Tonight Show" Orchestra. "We've all known each other since the mid-'70s." (Watts used to give clinics at Locke High School, where he met Rushen. Chancler also went to school there, and he met Johnson when the two played in Weather Report in 1975.)

Another important factor in the Meeting's continued existence is the players' musical camaraderie.

"Everybody can play a lot of different kinds of music, and you don't often get involved in an aggregation where everybody's comfortable doing a lot of different things. This is one," said Rushen, a keyboardist-singer who had such pop hits as "Forget Me Nots" in the '80s.

Because the players all respect each other, the quartet, which falls loosely under the jazz/fusion rubric, is a true cooperative unit. "In each co-op group I've been in, there's ultimately a central figure that emerges, but not here," said Watts. "This is the first group I've ever been in that everybody has an equal creative input all the time. I think that's what's kept us together, kept the energy flowing: It's nobody's band, it's everybody's band."

The ensemble, which has played "more off than on" since its inception, said Rushen, works about one tour a year, but that doesn't impede their musical progress. "We all seem to going parallel in different lanes but we're always running in the same direction, so when we do finally get together, it's not as if we're starting all over," said Rushen. "We pick right up from where we left off the last time."

Still, the musicians would like more collective performance time--"We're all players, so that's what we like to do," said Chancler--and their just-out, eponymously-titled GRP record is one solid step in that direction.

The players wanted to make sure the album represented the live sound of the group. "This isn't a production record. There aren't a lot of overdubs, no string pads, no ooh-wa singers, or other production tools," said Watts. "It's a playing record."

The material, all originals save one Duke Ellington piece, is eclectic--from "groove tunes and funk pieces to burning straight-ahead," said Watts--and was selected by committee.

"We wanted to include what the group had musically in the beginning and also point in the direction where we were intending to go," said Johnson, bassist with Weather Report from 1974-76, with Carlos Santana from 1985-89 and now fronting his own trio. "All the material we had been playing was up for review. We'd play a song and we'd pretty much know if it felt right."

Happy with the results--"We were hard on each other because we wanted the album to be the kind of representation that we knew it always could be," said Rushen--the band now hopes for response from the record-buying public. The chances are good for that, Watts feels.

"There's no other band that is doing what this band is doing," he said. "And because of the open, eclectic nature of the band, its freshness in that quote unquote fusion format, plus the fact we're the only non-white fusion band out there, at least as far as I know, and there's a large market for black instrumental music with nobody for those people to grab on to. The time is right for us."

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