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VALLEY WEEKEND | SOUNDS

Pianist Ronnell Bright Shines as a Songwriter and Singer, too

He's backed some of the biggest names in jazz. Now he has the spotlight on his own performance.

February 01, 1996|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"So many people know I'm a pianist, but they don't know I'm a composer," says Ronnell Bright, who wants to change that.

Bright's credits as a pianist run long: in his more than 40-year career, he's backed singers Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Carmen McRae and Nancy Wilson, played with Dizzy Gillespie's big band, worked in clubs in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago--you name it. He also has a master's degree in music from USC, majoring in, you've got it, piano.

His talents as a songwriter are not too shabby either. To prove the point, during this interview he takes several CDs out of a briefcase as evidence.

"My wife wanted me to make sure I didn't leave anything out," says Bright, smiling.

The albums by Vaughan ("No Count Sarah"), Lorez Alexandria ("Talk About Cozy"), Wilson ("Live at the Cocoanut Grove") and others contain such Bright numbers as "Missing You," "Sweet Pumpkin" and "Don't Call it Love."

Bright didn't bring two important documents: Bill Henderson's "Complete Vee Jay Recordings," which includes the first version of "Sweet Pumpkin," and Stanley Turrentine's out-of-print Blue Note album "Rough 'n' Tumble," which includes a very funky tune, "And Satisfy."

There's no question that Bright's multiple musical gifts are acknowledged in musicians' circles. He hopes to let a wider audience in on his skills with the release of "SeaMist," a new, self-produced CD that showcases his songwriting, piano playing and solid singing. The CD is currently available only by mail (call 818-368-7807).

Bright, who was born in Chicago and started playing piano at age 6, has lived in Northridge off and on since the late '60s. For the past six months, he has been playing Mondays through Wednesdays at Monty's Steakhouse in Woodland Hills. "I do a little of everything--my tunes, standards like 'All the Things You Are,' some bebop like 'Daahoud' and even medleys of classics," he says.

The one-time Juilliard student likes to offer Bach, Rachmaninoff and Chopin off the cuff.

Bright started composing songs during his 1958-61 tenure with Vaughan. "We were in Brussels for four months during the World's Fair in 1958. . . . My daughter had just been born and I was missing her, so I wrote 'Missing You' based on that feeling," he says.

As a pianist, Bright has had good fortune, performing with Gillespie's big band and recording with sax giant Coleman Hawkins on "The Hawk Relaxes" on Prestige Records ('He didn't say anything to us, just told us to play"). And he won a Grammy in 1975 for his performance on "Supersax Plays Bird" (Capitol). His debut album, "Bright Spot" on Savoy, has recently been reissued.

Bright, as you might expect, finds great reward in music. "It's my food, both for my spirit and body," he says. "It's the reason I'm here. Music is a beautiful expression of love, a tender vehicle to express the deepest emotions."

* Ronnell Bright appears Mondays through Wednesdays, 7:30 to 11:30 p.m., at Monty's Steakhouse, 5371 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Woodland Hills. No cover, no minimum. (818-716-9736).

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