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B Sharp and Be Original Is Jazz Quartet's Musical Goal : 'What we play is alternative improvisational music,' says the leader of the Los Angeles-based group, which is making its East Coast debut next week.

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August 30, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Don't let the name the B Sharp Jazz Quartet deceive you. The moniker may conjure up images of a band like the Modern Jazz Quartet, its members looking splendid in sleek tuxedos, their music cool and to the point, but those images would be off the mark.

This band offers sharp compositions--from straight-ahead to avant-garde to hip-hop--that go where you least expect them.

"We're not mainstream, we're not traditional, we're not contemporary," says B Sharp's leader, drummer Herb Graham Jr., who feels that his band's wide-ranging approach takes the group beyond the jazz realm.

"What we play is alternative improvisational music," says Graham. "What we are doing with this quartet is taking the music from the past, and embracing that, and also playing the music from the future, and embracing that ."

And while much of the talk these days about young jazz groups from Los Angeles is centered around the formidable Black/Note Quintet, B Sharp also deserves its share of respect.

The band's fine self-titled debut album on Mama Foundation Records is generating both critical acclaim and nationwide airplay. Its scintillating performances, mostly in Southern California, have attracted a loyal coterie of fans.

One way B Sharp gets its distinctive sound is by offering original material almost exclusively. To this end, as Art Blakey did for decades, Graham demands that the members of the group write, and the band's CD documents the players varying styles.

On B Sharp's album, Graham's " 'T' Thyme" has a Latin groove, while saxophonist Randall Willis' "Almost Next" is a post-bop blues that swings. "Analytical Cubism," from bassist Reginald Carson, sways between an edgy yet foot-tapping section and one that's riotously fast, and pianist Eliot Douglass' "Ballad" is simple and pretty.

"We wanted a record that had all the flavors, from hard core to funky, from the softer to the abstract," says Graham. "We wanted to give everybody something to listen to."

And there's lots more waiting to be recorded, says Doug Evans, general manager of the nonprofit Mama Foundation, which signed B Sharp to a deal for one album with an option for another.

"There's at least enough material to make four more albums," says Evans. "I was very impressed with the quality of the compositions."

Graham says the origins of the band's name can be traced to the zesty tune "D Flat Waltz," which keyboardist Joe Zawinul wrote in the '70s for his band, Weather Report. That name sparked him to come up with the "B Sharp" handle.

"The words seemed to describe not only a musical group, but expressed something about a kind of lifestyle vibe," he says. "It sounded elegant, and I wanted the words Jazz Quartet in there, in case we're together for 40 years, like the Modern Jazz Quartet."

The seeds for B Sharp were first planted when Graham formed a guitar-bass-drums trio in 1988. But despite many gigs in the world of rock and pop--Graham has played with such bands as the Supremes, the Watts Prophets and Queen Latifah--he'd always wanted to form an acoustic jazz quartet.

That goal came alive when he met Willis, a saxophone soloist who is both intrepid and commanding, on an alternative rock gig in 1988 and the pair started playing duos in the drummer's loft apartment.

Graham met Douglass on a tour of Japan with the Supremes in 1989 and invited him to join B Sharp. The group was complete when Carson, a former baritone saxophonist who turned to bass in his early 20s, joined up. The group made its debut in May, 1990, after rehearsing for a month or two at the World Stage, the Crenshaw District music showcase co-founded by drummer Billy Higgins and poet Kamau Daa-ood. In the subsequent four years, B Sharp's intriguing, diverse style was heard at such venues as 5th Street Dick's, the Atlas Bar & Grill, the Jazz Bakery and the UCLA Jazz Festival, Jazz at Drew, and the International Assn. of Jazz Appreciation's tribute to Billy Higgins.

"I thought they were terrific, one of the best young bands I've heard," says Darlene Chan, associate producer of the Playboy Jazz Festival, commenting on B Sharp's set at a pre-Playboy concert she booked this June at Santa Monica College. "You could tell they worked together, that they're a unit. It's not like, 'Hey, let's just go play this gig.' Their repertoire is very thought out."

The band faces a new challenge next week when it takes its music to the East Coast for the first time. They will play at Blues Alley in Washington on Sept. 8 and at Benny's in Baltimore on Sept. 9-10. Graham sees these Eastern dates not only as an opportunity to gain a new audience, but also as a way of proving to fans and players in the East that West Coast bands like his, and Black/Note, are first-rate ensembles.

Graham thinks B Sharp should be included on non-jazz concerts, too. In this way, he feels, that jazz--and, specifically, B Sharp--can overcome what he says is a compartmentalization that limits the band's exposure and, as a result, album sales.

"In the '60s at the Fillmore (Auditorium in San Francisco, producer) Bill Graham booked people like Miles Davis and Charles Lloyd on bills with rock bands like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane," he says. "I want B Sharp to play on some alternative music concerts, say with the Eurythmics or Stone Temple Pilots. If you let people listen to jazz as much as you let them listen to other music, jazz would be just as popular."

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