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Life in Jazz's In-Between Zone : Keyboardist John Beasley's musical vocabulary ranges from electric-eclectic to be-bop.

August 25, 1994|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Too often, jazz in Southern California cleaves to one or two schools of thought. Mainstream jazz has its stalwart clutch of practitioners and devotees. On the other end, there is the vapid gravy train of "contemporary jazz," for which the term jazz may be a misnomer.

But wait: that's not the whole story.

Take the case of keyboardist John Beasley, who, at 34, has long made his way in an in-between zone. Beasley's vocabulary stretches from the electric-eclectic end of the spectrum to more be-bop-influenced territory. The Louisiana-born, Texas-raised and, since 1977, Los Angeles-based musician is nothing if not versatile.

It has been this versatility that has earned Beasley coveted work with Freddie Hubbard and with the late Miles Davis after the release of Davis' last official studio album, "Amandla." Beasley has also been bassist John Patitucci's chief keyboardist since the two met at Carnegie Hall while playing with Hubert Laws in 1981. Beasley has also done a lot of rent-paying studio work--for TV, film, records and commercials.

For further proof of Beasley's healthfully split personality, listen to last year's "Change of Heart" album on the now-defunct Windham Hill Jazz label. The underrated album, produced by Walter Becker (on whose forthcoming debut solo album Beasley played), is an inspiring representation of how a jazz artist can cross boundaries with integrity intact.

See Beasley live when he brings a quartet to White Winds Studio in Montecito Friday night. Joining Beasley will be bassist Alphonso Johnson, drummer Gary Novak and saxophonist Steve Taviglione, all provocative, genre-bending musicians from L.A.

On the morning that Beasley did this interview, he was on his way to a recording session for Patitucci's newest project, and had just moved into a new house near Marina del Rey. After living in an apartment, the affable Beasley was enthused about relocating.

"Moving into this house and finally being able to play my piano whenever I want, having my studio right here in the next room--it seems like the start of a new era," he said. "I'm not sure what it's going to bring or where it's going to go yet. But it feels good and it feels like the start of a new creative period."

Was the experience in Miles Davis' band in the late '80s a real turning point for you?

Yeah, both musically and personally. I felt like I became a man in a lot of ways.

So it was a rite of passage?

It was, in a way. A lot of things happened at the same time. That same year, I had just gotten married and my wife was pregnant and I had just bought a house.

Musically, just being able to comp behind him, I don't think my ears have ever been so in tune with the music around me. He commanded that without ever really saying anything. He heard every note he played.

Your song 'Carnal Appetite' is reminiscent of mid-'70s Herbie Hancock, which is more refreshing to hear than the garden variety pop-jazz going around these days.

Oh, you mean instrumental pop? Well, on that song, we're blowing over that funky rhythm and stretching it out. We're not just staying there, copping that groove, hanging out there and having a margarita by the pool.

Things will come back again, though. It's all a cycle. Hasn't there always been pop-jazzy guys? Think of Herbie Mann. "Watermelon Man. . ." I don't know if there's actually a correlation between Kenny G and all these guys, though. I'm trying to find one.

You've been a part of a circle of L.A. musicians who are broad-minded and have something to say. Is it inevitable that certain types of musicians just naturally gravitate toward each other?

I think so. You're on a gig and this guy shows up who you've never played with, and you click on the gig for those reasons. There is a jazz scene here of musicians who can really play. There isn't much opportunity to hear them play and often, when they do go out and play at a little club, not many people come out and support it, because they want to hear the other stuff.

I hate to generalize, but it seems that in Los Angeles, you either find real straight-ahead jazz or else this hot tub, happy jazz. We do get college kids coming out.

But we hang tough. We go out and play anyway. We have to.

Details

* WHAT: The John Beasley Quartet.

* WHERE: White Winds Studio, 113 Middle Road, Montecito.

* WHEN: Friday; shows at 8 and 10 p.m.

* COST: $15.

* CALL: 969-5718.

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