SHERMAN OAKS — Mark Isham is mainly known as the composer of first-rate film soundtracks, including the music for Robert Redford's Oscar- nominated "A River Runs Through It," Howard Franklin's "The Public Eye," Robert Benson's "Point Break" and Robert Altman's "Short Cuts."
But Isham, 42, started in music as a trumpeter and, over the last two decades, has revealed a profound affinity for jazz, pop and ethnic genres. He says he's not about to choose one style over another.
The musician leads his acoustic quintet, featuring David Goldblatt (keyboards), Steve Tavaglione (saxes), Doug Lunn (bass) and Kurt Wortmann (drums), tonight and Saturday at Le Cafe in Sherman Oaks. He points out that though his band basically plays jazz, there's a lot more than just jazz going on.
"The guys and I all have wide experiences in music, in jazz, pop and ethnic musics, and we like to draw upon all those," says the musician, who has performed with Van Morrison and the Sons of Champlin, and recorded with Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson and Was (Not Was).
"Even though the band is basically acoustic," he says, "you couldn't say we're a traditional jazz band, like a hard bop band on Blue Note Records. Keith Jarrett is one of my biggest influences, musically and as a bandleader. I love the way he instills structure versus freedom."
Isham, like pianist Jarrett, says he wants his music to feel very open, whatever the genre. He adds that with his quintet, "I communicate to the guys that I don't necessarily feel that anyone has to keep to what are thought of as rules.
"If a tune is slow, it doesn't always have to be. If a piece has no place for everyone to stop and the piano player plays by himself, well, that could happen. Things that are usually considered compositional devices can be done improvisationally when you start creating with that point of view. A lot of interesting things can happen."
Isham's current band is an acoustic outgrowth of several bands, among them the electronically dominated Group 87 and the subsequent Mark Isham band, which recorded the Grammy-winning "Mark Isham" for Virgin Records in 1990.
He says his present quintet plays plenty of originals, built around his proclivity for fresh, melodic improvisations. The group also plays some jazz and pop standards; the leader says experimentation and creative risks are necessary for these tunes to be fully realized.
"When you play a piece that comes from the long tradition of jazz, it's exciting to take that and make it your own. That adds depth to the band's experience," he says. "And it can be easy to just fall into licks that you have played before, but if you take a stand and apply the same philosophy that you might use with your original material, then I think standards can be very rewarding."
Isham's variety of music is one of his drawing cards, says Dale Jaffe, owner of Le Cafe. "He covers a lot of ground, and this diversity explains why he is such a hot item in the film business right now. He has this wealth of knowledge about music, and he exhibits it at the club."
The late Miles Davis is Isham's chief trumpet influence. "He had the ability to play so melodically, emotionally, poignantly," Isham says. "If you throw a tune at him with 1,000 chord changes, he'd ignore them and find a beautiful melody that fits. That's always interested me. I've never been interested in technique just for the sake of technique, although I respect technique very highly."
Balancing composing and writing is not easy. But Isham, who is now working on the score to Roger Donaldson's remake of the 1972 classic, "The Getaway," insists he'll always find time to perform.
"Film is collaborative," says Isham, who lives in Benedict Canyon with his wife, Donna, and their two young sons, Jake and Nicholas. "I'm never the boss. But with my band, I get to experience a creative form where the final buck stops with me." The musician says it's important to have both points of view--composing for film and performing live--represented in his life.
"The band's up there, communicating to each other and the audience in this beautiful, abstract language," he says. "I feel the joy of creation, that exultation of making something live on the spot. It's a fantastic feeling."
Where and When What: Mark Isham's quintet plays the Room Upstairs at Le Cafe, 14633 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. When: 9 and 11 tonight and Saturday. Cost: $12 cover, two-drink minimum. Call: (818) 986-2662.