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Out of Africa : Bassist Armand Sabal- Lecco's star has been rising since leaving Cameroon. He's worked with Paul Simon, among others.

March 04, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times.

STUDIO CITY — Armand Sabal-Lecco, the 28-year-old bassist and composer from Cameroon, has performed and recorded with Paul Simon, the Brecker Brothers, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke, John Patitucci, Vanessa Williams and many others.

All this was never supposed to happen.

His father, Felix Sabal-Lecco, was once vice president of the Republic of Cameroon, on the western coast of Africa, and later its ambassador to France and Italy. He hoped his son would follow in his footsteps. "I was supposed to be a lawyer, a politician," Sabal-Lecco said.

But like his brothers Felix, a drummer, and Roger, a bassist, Sabal-Lecco was driven toward music and, at 13, switched from drums to bass. He also acted the madcap on skateboards all around Yaounde, the nation's capital.

But this was not the proper attitude for a diplomat's son, and he was sent to live with a sister in Paris when he was 15.

"My father felt that I had to leave, go where nobody would know me," he said with a laugh.

Since then, Sabal-Lecco has thrived, becoming one of the music world's most in-demand bassists. He plays Saturday at La Ve Lee in Studio City.

Many people wrongly assume, Sabal-Lecco says, that he plays only African music.

"I'm a guy who lives iA., who lived in France, who lived in Rome, who's from Cameroon, and who grew up playing funk, rock and straight-ahead jazz," said Sabal-Lecco, a tall, striking-looking man with a quick, winning smile.

"I started playing African music only after I moved to Paris. In Africa then, it wasn't hip to play African music. So my music is a mix of all those different things."

There's definitely a jazz core to the music that Sabal-Lecco plays at La Ve Lee, where his band includes such upper-echelon L. A. jazz journeymen as David Goldblatt on keyboards and Steve Tavaglione on saxes and electronic wind instrument.

The tunes, open and loose, are melodically diverse, variously underpinned by popping back beats and more fluid, African-based rhythmic patterns that allow plenty of room for soloing.

Sabal-Lecco, who avoids affixing labels to his music, calls this stuff "Leccology."

"Our band likes to play with the songs like Miles used to do at the beginning of the '80s," he said. "We have the frame, the shape of the song, but we play with it. It seems like we're as relaxed as in a jam, but everything is pretty set and written."

That relaxed attitude typifies Sabal-Lecco's approach to music in general. "I'm a formally self-taught musician, so how I learned music was from what I was feeling, not from what I was reading," he said. And those feelings determine the outcome of his performances, he added.

"How I play depends on who's playing with me, who's listening, the reaction of the crowd. And I want my band to play that way. Some musicians are so involved in how a tune has been written that there's no communication within the band on stage, and with the audience. I need musicians who can communicate."

Sabal-Lecco is succeeding, and his band sounds great, says Olivier Vabois, who, with owner Eddie Arbi, books La Ve Lee. "Armand's music is challenging, sometimes really difficult music, but it feels good," Vabois said.

In Paris in the late '80s, Sabal-Lecco had just finished a two-week tour with Xamahal, a band he and his brother Felix led, when destiny, in the form of Paul Simon, called--many, many times.

"I knew of Paul, but I'd never met him and, when I came home, he'd left a lot of messages"--close to 100, the bassist said.

Sabal-Lecco recalled thinking, "What is this? Maybe it was a friend of mine playing a joke."

So when Simon's manager called, asking him to come to New York for a session, he did what any of us would do with what we think is a crank caller--he hung up.

Eventually, Sabal-Lecco called the New York number Simon had left on a message, reached the manager he had hung up on, apologized, and was hired to perform a number of tunes on Simon's then-upcoming, now classic album "Rhythm of the Saints."

Since then, Sabal-Lecco's star has been glowing. He's toured with Simon and Art Garfunkel. He's had his tunes recorded by fellow bassists Clarke and Patitucci, with whom he wrote "Another World," which was nominated for a 1993 contemporary jazz instrumental performance Grammy. All this, and he's just 28.

"For me, it's been a blessing to move here and make it," he said. "For a lot of people, it's very, very hard. I'm very fortunate."

WHERE AND WHEN

Who: Armand Sabal-Lecco.

Location: La Ve Lee, 12514 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

Hours: 9:30 and 11:30 p.m. Saturdays.

Price: $10 cover, two-drink minimum.

Call: (818) 980-8158.

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