Persistence paid off for Huntington Beach saxophonist Jeff Kashiwa, who set a goal early on to join one of his favorite groups, a category that included Spyro Gyra and fluegelhornist Chuck Mangione's band.
"I kept thinking to myself, 'I'm playing in all these R & B bands around town and that's fine for paying the phone bill, but it's not really a career move,' " Kashiwa, 28, explained last week during a phone interview. "I didn't want to be stuck playing in these anonymous clubs."
So he began to call around. "I was pretty naive," he admits. "I called the different management companies and asked them if there were any auditions coming up. They all said 'no, no.' So I decided to go another route."
Highest on his list of personal favorites was guitarist Russ Freeman's group, the Rippingtons. He knew, back in 1988, that Brandon Fields, the Rippingtons' original saxophonist, was preparing to go out on his own. He came up with a plan.
"A friend of a friend knew Steve Bailey, who played bass for them at the time," he said. "So I got Bailey's phone number and hired him for a weekly combo gig I had at (Newport Beach's Le) Meridien Hotel. I basically wanted that to be my audition, I wanted him to get to know my playing."
That's when persistence came in to play. After meeting and working with Bailey, Kashiwa began to query him about the Rippingtons job.
"I called him every week for a year to see if there was an opening," Kashiwa said. "So when Brandon finally decided to leave, Steve suggested me for the gig. At that time I knew all the tunes because I had been practicing with the album. I definitely wanted it."
Once Kashiwa filled in for Fields at a festival in Racine, Wis., the gig was his. Since then, he's appeared on the band's two most recent albums, "Welcome To the St. James Club" and "Curves Ahead." The group did 80 concerts around the country in 80 days last fall.
This year, the Rippingtons will tour Japan in February, return to the studio to record their next album in March, and then head to Europe sometime after that. In between, Kashiwa writes, does studio work and plays local engagements under his own name. Tonight and Saturday he'll be with the Luther Hughes trio at El Matador in Huntington Beach.
The saxophonist hopes his position in one of fusion's most visible bands eventually will lead to a solo career. To that end, he's spent his recent time at home gathering tunes for an album he hopes to do later this spring.
"I want it to go in to different directions," he said. "I want to have a couple of cuts that are more New Age, meaning softer and more textural. But then I also want tunes that are more R & B-based, contemporary dance tunes with singable, pop-like melodies. A good variety."
Kashiwa credits his father, who died earlier this month, with exposing him to jazz and getting him started playing an instrument. "My father had one of those old silver clarinets, an antique, and he gave me my first lessons on it. He also had a beat-up eight-track (tape) player and would play Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. It was the first jazz I ever heard.
"Even though he wasn't a musician himself, he was a very musical person. He had a very critical ear and I always liked to bounce ideas off him, play him a tune and ask what he thought. He was always very positive."
The public schools he attended also were central to his musical development. "That's why I'm horrified to think that budget cuts might mean some kids won't get the exposure to music they should have," he said.
He remembers going into the junior high band room while a seventh-grader in the Lake Forest school district near Seattle and being bitten by the bug.
"I walked in and saw this whole row of shiny saxophones and just fell in love," he recalls. "From then on, it became an incredible passion. I became this band geek--I lived in the band room."
Later, Kashiwa studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston and then at Cal State Long Beach. He first came to California after winning an audition, held at New York's Carnegie Hall, for the Disneyland All-American College Band, his first professional job. He paid dues with a host of area R & B bands. "The experience of playing every night, fresh or not, really prepared me for going out on the road."
In addition to his post with the Rippingtons, Kashiwa has recorded a trio of albums with guitarist Richard Smith and a pair of discs with singer-songwriter-keyboardist Dan Siegel. He also toured with keyboardist David Benoit last spring and recently recorded with Michael Wolff, music director of the Arsenio Hall Show. He does the occasional studio assignment, too. But, for now, the Rippingtons occupy the majority of his time.
"There's a spirit that the Rippingtons have that I want to keep in my music," he said. "Even though we're playing instrumental jazz, it isn't this esoteric, hard-to-grasp form of art. It can celebrate love, or joy. And that helps it to be a little more palatable for the people who come and hear it."
Jeff Kashiwa appears with the Luther Hughes Trio tonight and Saturday at 9 p.m. at El Matador, 16903 Algonquin St., Huntington Beach. Admission: free. Information: (714) 846-5337.