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Joy of Jazz : Sax man Bill Perkins of Sherman Oaks has taken his passion for the music in a new direction.

July 30, 1993|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about music for The Times

Saxophonist Bill Perkins says jazz has been feeding his soul for four decades, and the process shows no signs of diminishing.

"Jazz keeps me young. Even after all these years, it's still the big, consuming interest of my life, the great joy of my elder years," said Perkins, 69, a Sherman Oaks resident who focuses on tenor saxophone. He plays Sunday, and Aug. 15 and 29, at Jax in Glendale.

Performing with the big bands of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, and with Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars, Perkins in the late 1940s and 1950s was a star of the West Coast jazz scene. He was renowned for his lyrical, soft-toned tenor playing, which was deeply influenced by the marvelous Lester Young and three of Young's disciples: Stan Getz, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.

That Young-based style was Perkins' calling card until about 10 years ago, when he felt he had to try something new.

"Now my attitude is forward-looking. I don't play the way I used to. In fact, it astounds me how much I have changed," he said in a phone interview from Port Townsend, Wash., where he was taking part in a celebration of Kenton's music.

Perkins explained: "Through playing with pianist Frank Strazzeri, with whom I have been associated for about 12 years, and through playing at a club in Pasadena called Dino's, that's now closed, I suddenly started to break loose.

"I started to check out what the great modern masters like Joe Lovano, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane were doing, the way they weren't playing strict patterns, the way they were unpredictable," Perkins said. "Before then, I really wasn't able to appreciate them. Now I'm able to incorporate the way they play with some of my own ideas.

"I don't play like Lester Young anymore, though hopefully Lester still has some influence," said Perkins, whose current solos have a keen modernity that reflects his awareness of Shorter, Lovano and the others. "I feel my playing has expanded; there's greater variety to it; my approach is maybe harder. I know I am enjoying doing it more."

Perkins said he used to live in fear of playing a wrong note.

"But in the last 10 years, I have realized there are no wrong notes, and it's a great freedom," he said. "The doors have opened. Sometimes I step all over myself, but that doesn't matter. You gotta try."

Perkins knows some friends and fans from many years ago might feel let down by his shift in style. But "jazz has to keep moving," he said. "I don't take issue with those musicians who want to stay the same, but, me, I have to move, even if it's sideways."

Many people believe that Perkins has never played a wrong note or made a wrong move. One is composer Johnny Mandel, who, in the liner notes of Perkins' "I Wished on the Moon" Candid Records release, said, "Whether Bill is playing tenor, alto or flute, the results can only be described as exquisite."

At Jax, Perkins will front a quartet featuring Strazzeri, with whom he plays in the pianist's Woodwinds West sextet.

"Frank's one of America's truly great piano players and a wonderful composer," Perkins said. "At Jax, about a third of the tunes we play are his. His tunes are so conducive for jazz improvisation."

These days, Perkins is playing more jazz than ever, and mostly with a rhythm section, which he said is "the highest form of the art." For many years, however, he was in the Los Angeles film and television studios, "playing 13 instruments at the same mediocre level," he quipped. He also was a longtime member of Doc Severinson's "Tonight Show" orchestra.

Perkins believes now that if it hadn't have been for people such as Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, he never would have survived as a jazz musician.

"Nobody could have been luckier than to play with those two guys," he said. "Though they were very different, they were both forward-looking and respected musicians, never telling you how to play. Stan especially gave me the feeling of worth, like being a jazz musician was something of great value. In our American system of values, I needed that."

WHERE AND WHEN

Who: Bill Perkins.

Location: Jax, 339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.

Hours: 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Sunday, and Aug. 15 and 29.

Price: No cover, no minimum.

Call: (818) 500-1604.

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