When Theo Saunders plays, his round, mustachioed face runs through a spectrum of emotions and gestures, in keeping with the investigative path of his solos.
An intensity will come over him during a dense, swirling passage. Then comes a brief beaming grin of satisfaction--gone as soon as it appears--as a phrase hits a stride of resolution, before darting off again.
At other times, he peers deep into the insides of the grand piano, as if sharing a secret with the instrument he has played professionally for the past 29 years.
It's no secret that Saunders, the jazz luminary who made Ventura County home for the last six years, is something special. Part of the reason he's relocating to Santa Barbara this weekend is that he's had little opportunity to demonstrate his art here.
Last week at SoHO, a jazz club in Santa Barbara, Saunders gathered with a quartet of potent players--his right-hand bassist Chris Symer, drummer Dave Karasony and Jon Crosse, the accomplished saxophonist who makes his home in Oak View when not on the road.
Saunders' long, venturesome solo on "I Hear a Rhapsody" brought hearty applause from an otherwise slightly distracted Thursday night crowd. A patron leaned over and sighed, "That solo made my evening." Saunders has that kind of knack.
Saunders is nothing if not a champion of the fine art of the jazz solo. You never know quite what direction a solo will take, and therein lies the excitement of the endeavor. He adheres to the forms of jazz tunes--both familiar standards and rarities--in a loose way, tugging at or gliding over the prevailing rhythm or harmony.
When he's on a roll, ideas pour forth in a long-connected line: It's as if the solo has a mind of its own.
A New York City native, Saunders grew up in an apartment on West 76th Street where his parents, both Russian emigres who came to the United States as children during the Russian Revolution, have lived for 49 years.
Saunders comes from theatrical stock, dating back to his grandfather's theater troupe in Kiev. Saunders' parents have pursued acting, as have sister, brother-in-law and nephew.
"I'm sort of like the black sheep in the family," he said with a laugh, sitting on the sunny deck of his beach-side Oxnard condominium that he'll soon leave. "But we had music on in the house all the time when I was growing up. Three or four times a week, we'd all be singing and dancing.
"My mother sang all these show tunes that, strangely enough, became the jazz standards that I still play--like Cole Porter's 'I Love You,' or 'Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,' although she used to do it as a tango, the original way it was written."
Cultural roots are an apparent interest for Saunders, who got a chance to revisit the homeland when he went to Russia two summers ago as musical director of the cross-cultural "Peace Child" project.
He walked on the cobblestone streets in an old section of Kiev, he said.
"I couldn't help thinking that my father had walked on these same streets as a child. I started to get chills about it."
Ask Saunders about his influences, and he'll mention some of the more obvious titans of the modern jazz piano--Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Thelonius Monk, Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner and Wynton Kelly. But he's also not one to forget those musicians, unfamiliar names to most, whom he has encountered on a more personal level.
There was the 14-year-old saxophonist Billy Ross, with whom a 16-year-old Saunders played on his first professional job, working the Borscht Belt in the Catskills. There was trumpeter Ray Maldanado, who taught Saunders in Manhattan's High School for the Performing Arts (Saunders played trumpet in high school before returning to the piano, which he studied at NYU). It was Maldanado who instilled in the young Saunders a passion for jazz.
Living in Montreal at age 20, Saunders hooked up with John Coltrane-influenced guitarist Sonny Greenwich. Greenwich invited Saunders to play a weeklong gig at the Village Vanguard in New York, in a band featuring bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
"It was a terrifying experience for me," Saunders said. "But interestingly enough, the first night that we played, everything was great. Then I started thinking too much about it and the rest of the week was just shot for me. But that was a major gig."
Saunders moved to Los Angeles in the mid-'70s, "trying to save a marriage" (he has two children, in their early 20s). Returning to New York in 1980, he began circulating and gaining a good reputation.
In New York, he often played with some key jazz musicians, among them guitarists John Scofield, Mike Stern and Bill Frisell, at a now-defunct club called the 55 Grand St. Bar. There, he also played with saxophonist Steve Slagle, who introduced him to bandleader-composer Carla Bley. Bley was impressed, and Saunders wound up playing in her ensemble for a year.