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Valley Weekend : MUSIC : SOUNDS : Pianist's Jazz Career Has a Flip Side in Pop : Up-and-coming musician Greg Kurstin is equally at home in both worlds. His work is marked by a persuasive inventiveness.

October 19, 1995|ZAN STEWERT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Greg Kurstin lives a very unusual dual existence: he's a dedicated be-bop-based jazz pianist who also has more than a leg planted in the world of modern pop music.

As a jazzer, Kurstin, 26, plays with his melody-rich, rhythmically powerful quartet, which performs tonight through Saturday at Bjlauzezs, a new jazz and blues room in Sherman Oaks. (The club's name, pronounced "Blouses," is a wedding of the words "blues" and "jazz.")

As a pop musician, Kurstin is co-leader with Tommy Jordan of the band Geggytah, which has been described as playing "avant soul" and is completing its second album for David Byrne's Luakbop label--distributed by Warner Bros. The group also appears on the soundtrack of the just released Wayne Wang film, "Blue in the Face," offering a version of War's "Why Can't We Be Friends."

Kurstin, a creative type who instills everything he does with a persuasive inventiveness, finds his pop venture a refreshing break from the intensity of jazz.

"Jazz is my main thing," he said. "Geggytah is more something on the side, but the stuff is really challenging and it gives me a nice outlet to do something completely different from jazz."

In the jazz field, Kurstin, a native and continued resident of L.A., is definitely a young man on the way up. Recently he placed second to New York-based Jill McCarron in a piano competition at a jazz festival in Jacksonville, Fla. "Second was fine," he said. "And so was the prize money--a thousand dollars."

The pianist regularly appears with Charles McPherson, perhaps the finest be-bop alto saxophonist playing today. "It's an education," said Kurstin. "He's a master of playing beautiful things, ending phrases on the right note." The youth also performs with vibist Bobby Hutcherson and will travel with him to New York in December to play the hallowed Village Vanguard club.

Kurstin started piano lessons at age 5 and fell in love with music as a teen-ager, when jazz became a priority in his life. He went on to graduate from Cal Arts in 1992. "Music is such an amazing way of expressing yourself," he said. "There are so many aspects that attract me: writing, playing, talking with other musicians, hearing them play. The best way to get closer to it is to do it yourself."

* Greg Kurstin's quartet, with alto saxophonist James Mahone, plays tonight through Saturday, 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., at Bjlauzezs, 14502 Ventura Blvd., at Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks. $5 cover without dinner. Information: (818) 789-4583.

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