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MUSIC : Tooting Coltrane's Horn : Jazzman Steve Huffsteter found his guru not in a fellow trumpeter but in a master saxophonist.

August 11, 1995|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times

GLENDALE — Most trumpet players lean toward those who play their instrument as major influences. But some trumpeters--among them Freddie Hubbard, the late Woody Shaw and Steve Huffsteter--have modeled the heart of their style after the singular and compelling saxophone giant of the '50s and '60s, John Coltrane.

"Coltrane was my guru," Huffsteter says. "I had originally followed trumpeters, starting with Harry James, and then later Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown and others. But Coltrane struck a nerve, and in him I heard the call, that plaintive, emotional quality in someone's playing, that voice that speaks to those who are ready to hear it."

Huffsteter, a native of Monroe, Mich., moved to Gila Bend, Ariz., when he was 10, then ultimately settled with his family in Phoenix. He did well in jazz there, becoming "a big fish in a little pond," he says. And in Phoenix he heard Coltrane on records made in the mid-'50s with Miles Davis. The experience changed him irrevocably.

"He opened me up to all kinds of music," Huffsteter, 59, says in a conversation from the home in Altadena he shares with his wife, Dee, a percussionist. "I understood Mozart better after Coltrane. Music is a language, and Coltrane's way of handling the language had so much content, so much meaning for me, and still does."

Huffsteter, who has been heard with the big bands of Toshiko Akiyoshi, Bob Florence and Bill Holman and with small groups led by Cecilia Coleman and John Newsome, calls himself a natural "right brain" player. "I approach the trumpet on my own terms. Outside of my dad showing me the fingerings on the instrument, I've never had a lesson," he says. It follows, then, that his way of absorbing Coltrane's influence would be personal.

"I tried to emulate what he was doing in an emotional way," says Huffsteter, who is featured Monday at Jax with saxophonist Newsome's band. "I'd get an impression of him and then play off that impression, rather than playing his exact notes. In him, I felt a wildness and a warmth at the same time that I had never experienced in any other kind of music. I tried to get the kind of intensity that was in his sound on my trumpet."

Huffsteter is a gifted improviser whose playing mirrors the warmth that one hears in Coltrane's music from the years 1955 to 1958. "I have to rely on what others say, but lyrical is the word that's most used in regard to my playing," he says.

The art of jazz improvisation is a mysterious one, and few players venture to describe what it feels like as it occurs, but Huffsteter was game. "What happens is that I feel like I've got one foot in the right [intuitive] brain, and one in the [cognitive, structure-oriented] left, and I'm channeling input from both brains without letting myself get involved in editing," he says. "If I do that, it's instant death, because I break the flow."

These days, Huffsteter works enough in the studios to support his "jazz habit," as he puts it, which he mainly indulges through performances with Newsome and Coleman. He's worked with both of them for several years--and has recorded with the latter on her "Young and Foolish" album on Resurgent Music. Both the saxophonist and pianist are provocative, insightful composers and offer him plenty of challenge.

"I have to practice for days to get ready for John," says Huffsteter. "He plays so strong and writes long tunes, so he really requires a lot of endurance. Cecilia writes tunes in so many styles. She's really prolific."

Huffsteter says his life in music is endlessly rewarding. "The beautiful thing is that you can never learn it all. You can learn forever."

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WHERE AND WHEN

Who: Steve Huffsteter appears with John Newsome's quintet.

Location: Jax, 339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.

Hours: 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Monday.

Price: No cover, no minimum.

Call: (818) 500-1604.

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