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SIGHTS : Keyboardist Returns to His Acoustic Roots : Todd Cochrane will be back at the piano for his weekend debut at Wheeler Hot Springs.

November 03, 1994|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If, in fact, the resume makes the man, what can be made of a keyboardist who, over the past 25 years, has worked with Bobby Hutcherson, Herbie Hancock, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Stan Getz, Peter Gabriel, John Hiatt, Burt Bacharach, his own prog-rock band Automatic Man and countless others?

What you have is Todd Cochrane, a versatile musician who has, in the last few years, tightened the focus of his musical endeavors and recommitted himself to a solo career. In effect, he put his resume and his massive arsenal of electronic equipment behind him, returning to the acoustic piano from whence he came.

He will make his debut at Wheeler Hot Springs this weekend, bringing a personal artistry that extends beyond the demands of idle dinner music.

Last week, in the midst of a long, reflective interview, Cochrane leaned over his kitchen table and declared, "I want to go on record as saying that I'm now completely committed to the world of piano and acoustic music."

That much is clear upon listening to the recording of his provocative and ambitious work-in-progress, which he calls "Americana Root Music." In an empathetic trio with bassist Trey Henry and drummer Dave Tull, Cochrane weaves strands of blues, gospel, jazz and folk music into a seamless, organic whole.

His agenda is "to authentically play folk music, spirituals, the blues and, of course, jazz, which is the urban aspect. The blues and the spirituals are the mother lode. I don't want to make it super-sophisticated, but to infuse it with emotion."

Cochrane sat down for an interview over sandwiches at his two-story condominium in Studio City, a shout away from a huge billboard promoting the WAVE radio station, sporting the huge grinning mug of Kenny G, who has come to represent the bubble-gum pop-jazz that presently looms over the musical landscape. Cochrane's inventive music couldn't be further away from the G formula.

Cochrane was raised in San Francisco, the prodigious son of musical parents. "I started off as a classically trained pianist and that was the intention from the beginning," he said. "Then I heard jazz and I was living in two worlds from that point."

When he was 19, Cochrane cut his debut album, "Worlds Around the Sun" for Fantasy records, and it hit No. 1 on the charts. Doors opened for him, including writing for Bobby Hutcherson and having his music recorded by Carlos Santana, who also at one point asked Cochrane to join Santana.

But Cochrane, then restless to play a more structured music than jazz offered, went to England for several years for what he now calls his "expatriate period." There, he gained a solid reputation as a synthesist in the art rock circle, formed the band Automatic Man--which enjoyed some success here and greater success in Europe--and also worked in the band PM with drummer Carl Palmer.

But the pendulum of taste shifted for Cochrane again, and he returned to California to reclaim some American roots.

"I had been working with music that was very, very structured, down to the most specific addresses. This was what happened in bar 12, on the end of 3--each time. Then we do this . . .It's different. It's different with the concept of jazz, which is like the gentle unfolding of a flower. Rock 'n' roll hits you at face value and then it's done.

"It's a struggle to create that freedom that is the essence of jazz--the sense that we the artists and the audience are experiencing a musical event for the first time, with each other."

In the early '80s, Cochrane landed in Los Angeles and began a productive career as a session musician, producer, arranger, studio owner and all-around point man. He worked with a massive artist list that included the Commodores, DeBarge, Aretha Franklin and Joan Armatrading (on whose forthcoming album Cochrane plays). But pouring his efforts into the music of others, while his own musical instincts went unexplored, became frustrating to a degree that required yet another shift.

Three years ago, he had the opportunity to record an acoustic piano album, "Todd," for the small Vital label. Well-received, the album became a catalyst for a major change. "I had to remove myself from that behind-the-scenes, hired-gun position," he said.

"Americana Root Music" may be one of the fresher-sounding musical statements around, once it comes out (Cochrane hopes to release it by early next year in time to book the summer jazz festivals).

But this is not a conventional jazz piano trio project. Does he recognize the potential hard-sell prospects in a market prone to easy categorization?

"No," he said, "because I think my whole approach has been to present the artistry before the category. It's like what Duke Ellington said, that good music is good music. Sure, we're living in an industry-driven society, but I do feel that things which are organic and come with a relationship to what is occurring have a natural, significant audience."

Central to his current musical efforts are the ideas of connections and common ground between the various styles that he has worked in.

"I recently did a lecture at Stanford entitled 'The Common Thread,' which has to do with the common thread that exists between musics. Beyond the notes, there's the soul of the music, the spiritual commitment to communicate in a certain way.

"That's what gives music its life. That's what has enabled me to travel in the circles that I have, which you'd normally think would be separate. I've been able to identify the spirit of the music and then the context comes from there."

Details

* WHO: Todd Cochrane.

* WHEN: Nov. 4 and 5, and for Sunday brunch on Nov. 6.

* WHERE: Wheeler Hot Springs, 16825 Maricopa Highway, Ojai.

* CALL: 646-8131.

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