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MUSIC THE AVANT GARDENERS : Cultivated : Trumpeter Nate Birkey seizes the spotlight, but the cool-jazz foursome is more than just Birkey's band.

July 18, 1991|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's Saturday night at Soho, one of Santa Barbara's premier jazz clubs. Revelers are reveling and are forced to rub elbows, both by choice and by the sheer law of physics.

For the benefit of the swollen crowd, the Avant Gardeners are kickin' it, in their own way, on their own time.

Song titles are revealing of a deeper essence; Antonio Carlos Jobim's sultry bossa nova tune "Quiet Nights" and, later, Duke Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone" are two of the stronger selections in a late-night set. Under the circumstances, the joint is jumping in a decidedly cool fashion.

Chief Gardener Nate Birkey, he of mysterious charisma, subtle gossamer trumpet lines and understated voice, hunches over the microphone and leans into his phrases, shutting out the world.

It's not surprising that Birkey's hero, by his own admission, was the late, great trumpeter (and sometime singer) Chet Baker. Birkey closes a set with an original, "My Heart Belongs to You (Tonight)," that sounds like a tune from an unwritten show.

Birkey may seize the spotlight, but the Avant Gardeners is more than Birkey's band. An integrated whole, it is composed of four twentysomething musicians who share a passion for cool jazz. Pianist Jon Horvitz lays down a clean blanket of chordal support. Bassist John Hench attends dutifully to the basics, and drummer Dave Minolli underscores the whole package with tidy rhythmic accents and fancy brushwork.

A year after forming--almost accidentally--the Avant Gardeners now have regular club work, a faithful following and a fine self-produced album, titled "Kickin' It," to their name.

They continue to pull in swarming crowds and are busy making jazz safe for club-goers, young and not-so-young, many of whom were weaned on anything but jazz.

As for the name, it's more about wordplay than truth-in-advertising. No, they don't answer to the call of the avant garde; they grab hold of ageless standards and treat them with respect.

It all began as a spinoff of Spencer the Gardener, that perennially popular Santa Barbara surf-Latin-jazz-camp group that Birkey plays in.

A day earlier, Birkey sat down to talk at another favorite downtown haunt, Mel's bar.

The venerable old watering hole sits snug and rugged amid the Gucci kitsch of the new Paseo Nuevo mall (the bar refused to budge when the mall started rolling). The bar is a comfortable old standby, like, say, "Fly Me to the Moon"--one of the best tracks on the Avant Gardeners album.

These days, Mel's jukebox plays the Cars and the Rolling Stones. Not long ago, it was stuffed with gems by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, the type of suave musical fare Birkey cut his teeth on.

Ironically, jazz and pop from decades past--thanks to the resurgence of mainstream jazz and popular young sensations such as Harry Connick Jr.--suddenly sound fresher than, say, the Rolling Stones.

"Seeing all these younger jazz players out now, I feel a little bit old," Birkey says, grinning. "I'm 28 now. I'm sure there are a lot of older, middle-aged players who are frustrated with the whole thing, saying, "I've been doing that for 30 years.' "

Birkey has been doing it for at least half that long. Growing up in Evergreen, Colo., in a musical family, Birkey was a young jazz aficionado who never really listened to pop music until college.

"My dad had a lot of old Dixieland albums and a lot of Herb Alpert records," he says. "I think he was the first trumpet player that I listened to. But as soon as I found Miles Davis, he became God to me. 'Sketches of Spain' was the first album I bought. I loved the sound of his trumpet."

After high school, Birkey went to the Berklee School of Music in Boston for a year, then to Seattle Pacific University before moving to Santa Barbara with an older sister in 1984.

He worked at odd jobs and later enrolled in UC Santa Barbara, but the real turning point--leading to his current musical path--was meeting Spencer Barnitz, who was already the lead singer in the once-a-week institution known as the Wedding Band.

Birkey literally spun into Barnitz's orbit, becoming a Wedding Band member and, with Barnitz, laying the groundwork for Spencer the Gardener.

Birkey even became an honorary member of Barnitz's old band, the Tan, which briefly relocated to London to try their fate, before breaking up for good.

Unfortunately, Birkey was the last to fly into London and the customs men at Heathrow weren't very accommodating. "They found out I was going there to work and didn't like that idea. I wasn't a very good liar at that point. So they deported me. That was the end of my stint with the Tan."

Meanwhile, Birkey was also honing his jazz skills with a quintet--featuring the current Avant Gardeners plus saxist Martin Matthews--that played every week at the old Borsodi's in Isla Vista. Over the course of their early gigging, Minolli became a convert to the cool touch.

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