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VALLEY WEEKEND | SOUNDS

Talent, Humility, Critical Acclaim and Moore

The sax man says he's his own toughest critic. But others say the 'Tonight Show' orchestra member is among the best.

June 20, 1996|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like many an artist, the superb jazz tenor- and soprano-saxophonist Ralph Moore is not about to compliment himself on his work.

"I'm notoriously hard on myself," he said. "I'm probably my own worst critic."

It's fortunate, then, that Moore, one of modern music's most melodic and emotional exponents, has others to speak for him. Like masterful pianist/composer Cedar Walton, whose Eastern Rebellion band and recent "Composer" album (Astor Place) spotlight the saxophonist. "Ralph is an incredible musician," Walton said. "He can play anything."

When Kenny Barron, a preeminent mainstream jazz keyboardist, was asked recently to name top young players in jazz today, he immediately said, "Ralph Moore." And critics around the world have been singing hosannas about Moore since he arrived on the modern jazz scene in the early '80s.

Moore has never lacked top-flight work. In 1981, he joined ace composer/pianist Horace Silver, an experience that Moore likens to "school: I learned so much." He later played with such other jazz giants as drummer Roy Haynes, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and trombonist J. J. Johnson, as well as in the co-op group Native Colours and in his own bands.

Moore has also recorded numerous critically acclaimed albums under his own name, starting with his stunning 1989 debut, "Images" (Landmark), and leading up to his most recent, 1995's "Who It Is You Are" (Savoy).

For the past 18 months, Moore has been a member of the orchestra for "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," led by his friend and guitarist Kevin Eubanks. But the show's relaxed schedule--it tapes at 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday--has allowed the saxophonist to do what is essential to a fine musician: play pure, straight-ahead jazz with a small group for an appreciative audience. He appears Saturday at Bjlauzezs in Van Nuys.

"I love to interact with other musicians," said Moore. "I need to go out and play, reach, try to grow."

Moore talks about the act of jazz improvisation, calling it an immense challenge that is ultimately very humbling, because the key is to reach inside and find a way to let the music come out of, or through, a person.

"It's not about ego," said Moore. "The moment and the feeling has to be right so that you can balance your skills and experience to create some honest music in real time. It's almost like searching for that thing that will open up or let go so that the music can speak through you. That's not about me and what I can do. It's about touching someone, being real."

*

Moore was born in London but spent his high school years in Santa Maria before going to the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1975. He now lives in Studio City with his wife, Cheryl.

For awhile, earlier in his career, his playing bore a strong resemblance to the highly melodic late-'50s artistry of John Coltrane. The saxophonist says that there have been other influences, too, such as Stanley Turrentine and Sonny Stitt. Now, though, the 39-year-old musician feels that he speaks with his own voice.

"When you're on the bandstand every night, trying to reach somebody else's standard, you're banging your head against a brick wall," he said. "You'll never be another 'Trane or Sonny--there was only one of them. I mean, there's still their influence. 'Trane was so sensitive, emotional, spiritual, all while being intense. His ideas struck me as really beautiful and heartfelt. But at some point I realized, for my own peace, I was going to have to give in, have some faith in myself, that maybe I had a song too."

At Bjlauzezs, Moore will be backed by a group that includes fellow "Tonight Show" members Bob Hurst (bass) and Marvin "Smitty" Smith (drums). These musicians have known each another since Boston in the mid-'70s and have developed considerable empathy.

"What I like about Bob and Smitty is their concentration, their commitment to the music," Moore said. "They're constantly searching in the music for a groove, a feeling, to get to the essence, for lack of a better word. We have good rapport on and off the bandstand and that helps, because playing improvised music is about a relationship, about trust, about giving and supporting. And since we've worked together, there's a common ground in our vocabulary, our dialogue."

Moore is happy to be on the "Tonight Show" and enjoys the security the job provides. The music, which used to be pretty much rock- and country-based, has changed, and he likes that, too.

"I knew that with Kevin involved we'd get to some good music, no matter the genre, but these days there's more of a mix," he said. "We play some jazz things now, we play salsa-type stuff, some James Brown. That pleases me more."

* Ralph Moore's quartet plays 9 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday, at Bjlauzezs, 14502 Ventura Blvd., at Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks. $5 cover without dinner. Information: (818) 789-4583.

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