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A Profession of Passion : Jazz guitarist Bennett Brandeis, who hears music in rustling leaves, aims to reach his audience, make them feel--and perhaps heal.

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

NEWHALL — Jazz giant Thelonious Monk once said that the goal of the musician was to "lift the bandstand," meaning to make the music take on an energy and life all its own.

Modern mainstream jazz guitarist Bennett Brandeis' term for the same circumstance is "get the music off the page."

"That's when you're working with other players who speak the same musical language, who have a common goal of getting out of the way of the music and allowing its natural force to flow through you," says the 34-year-old Los Angeles native who now lives in Northridge with his wife, Mary Ellen Buttner. "It's such an honorable feeling when that happens. It's also a gift that is incredibly healing."

Healing properties have long been ascribed to music, and Brandeis can offer stories of responses from listeners that affirm that position. Recently, he was playing in Sun Valley, Ida., and a woman came up to him after a set. "She said to me, 'I can't tell you how nice it was to hear you. I feel so rejuvenated,' " Brandeis says.

The guitarist, who plays tonight at Mitch's Java 'n' Jazz, does not take such remarks casually. He is deeply passionate about music, and his purpose as a player is to reach people, make them feel, tell them a story. As he talks, you understand that it's more about what he's doing than the fact that he's the one doing it that counts. "I'm just trying to serve the music," he says simply.

Still, he aims to inject twists into his music that create interest. "I'm trying to further the tradition of jazz guitar, maybe offer new light" on what has been played by the likes of Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall, he says. The music of such greats, he says, still raises the hair on his arms when he hears it.

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Preferring to play in trio situations, Brandeis will be appearing at Mitch's with pianist Louis Durra and drummer Eric Wells. On Thursday, he appears at the Pub at Cal State Northridge with bassist Jeff Littleton and drummer Jack LeCompte. Similarly, on his debut album, "Whirlybird" on White Wolf Records, Brandeis' expansive, glowing sound and expressive, improvisational approach are featured in the ace company of bassist Dave Carpenter and drummer Joe LaBarbera.

Brandeis explains the appeal of the small unit: "Because there's no one to cover your tail, the trio forces you to be creative. Since there aren't that many other musicians, I can hear what's going on inside of me, and I'm forced to bring that out."

Sometimes Brandeis doesn't play for a few moments, and the openness of the trio allows for that. "It's OK to leave a little space. Music is born of silence," he says. "When I'm not playing, I feel like I'm respectfully waiting, just letting the music happen."

Brandeis hears music everywhere: in the sound of the clinking cups of a man making cappuccinos, in a Tahitian breeze, in the sound of rustling leaves on a walk in a forest in Idaho. "That's beautiful music, God's music," says Brandeis, who notes that he is not particularly religious. "I'm a cultural Jew," he says. This, he jokes, means that "my family and I get together for brunches on weekends and yell at each other."

Despite being Jewish, Brandeis is the musical director at First Lutheran Church Glendale, which has been holding monthly Jazz Celebrations for more than a year.

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Steve Rowe, founder of the program, is happy to have someone with the guitarist's zealous and informed musical attitude aboard. "He really knows the musicians," Rowe says.

Adds Brandeis: "I just want to make sure the proper music gets presented by the performers." He explains that he wants to "pay reverence" to the performance space of the church, which such accomplished players as Bill Cunliffe and Cecilia Coleman have described as being quite special.

Brandeis has been involved with music since he was 4 or 5, and finally decided to pursue guitar full time at 15. He studied at both the now-defunct Dick Grove School of Music in Van Nuys and the Berklee College of Music in Boston, from which he graduated in 1985. He's performed with such pop groups as the Fifth Dimension, but these days, he plays jazz to the exclusion of everything else.

"Jazz is the only thing that consistently moves me, that never disappoints, that always fulfills," he says.

Where and When

What: Bennett Brandeis' trio.

Location: Mitch's Java 'n' Jazz, 22722 Lyons Ave., Newhall.

Hours: 8 tonight.

Price: $1 cover charge, no minimum.

Call: (805) 254-7500.

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