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Saxman Herb Geller Makes the Long Journey Home


Alto saxophonist Herb Geller is finally paying his hometown a musical visit.

One of the central figures in the West Coast jazz scene of the early '50s to early '60s, Geller, 64, has long lived in Hamburg, Germany, where he plays with the NDR Big Band, a radio orchestra.

Geller, a Los Angeles native, travels to Southern California about every two years to see family and friends, but he hasn't appeared in this area in 15 years. "I have wanted to play here, but things just haven't worked out until now," said Geller. He appears tonight at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City with pianist Kent Glenn, bassist Putter Smith and drummer Larance Marable.

In the '50s, the saxophonist performed with drummer Shelly Manne, trumpeter Chet Baker, saxophonist Bill Holman, and Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars. Heard on "Stax of Sax," a reissue from 1959 on the Fresh Sounds label, Geller's personal style evidences plenty of rhythmic vitality and melodiousness, and his sound is round and juicy.

Geller's approach today remains based on concepts he embraced in the '50s, but it's simply stronger, more expressive. "I'm still very concerned about melodies and emotional content," he said. "I have learned more about playing and I don't feel I have to play as fast as I used to."

Though Geller said he's really enjoyed his nine-month-a-year employment with the NDR, with whom he's worked since 1965, he's retiring next year. Then he'll concentrate on performing as a soloist, teaching and trying to get "Playing Jazz," a 20-tune musical for which he's written both words and music, produced.

"It's a memoir," he said. "It started when Joe Albany, a pianist who influenced me, died and I wrote a song about him," Geller said. "Then saxophonist Al Cohn, another influence, died, and I wrote another song." Later came the other tunes, including one about Lenny Bruce, with whom Geller often appeared during the '50s.

"Lenny thought of himself as a jazz musician, because he improvised," said Geller.

ON THE MEND: The condition of Horace Silver is improving. The 64-year-old pianist underwent a double hernia operation in June and later suffered complications from the surgery that placed him back in the hospital.

Reached at his Malibu home, Silver said that he is able to walk and drive his car. "I was shaky at first, but I have been doing exercises and have gotten a lot of strength back," he said.

Silver, whose latest album, "It's Got to be Funky," is newly out on Columbia Records, had to cancel an 11-week summer tour due to the operation. Though he didn't play for a month after his surgery, he's returned to the piano. "I'm not playing a lot, but I did write a tune last week. That felt good."

Silver said he wanted to thank all his friends and fans who prayed for him. "I have been feeling the strength of those prayers," he said.

CRITIC'S CHOICE: Donald Brown is not that well-known as a pianist, but his compositions have been recorded by scores of jazzmen, among them Art Blakey, Wynton Marsalis, Ralph Moore and Mulgrew Miller. Brown makes his first Los Angeles nightclub appearance Tuesday through next Sunday at Catalina Bar & Grill with bassist Richard Davis' all-star quintet. Trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, saxophonist Javon Jackson and drummer Ronnie Burrage will also be on hand.

Brown said he writes his tunes based on experience. "I let the music reflect how I feel, what's going on in the moment," he said.

Many of his current numbers have focused on racism, said Brown, whose latest album is "Cause and Effect" on Muse Records. "As an Afro-American . . . I wanted to write some tunes that remind us that everything is not great and lovely, that there are concerns on a greater scale, like having compassion for each other. And that's not just blacks and whites, but everybody."

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