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With His Skills, He Doesn't Have to Act His Age

Jazz review: Young saxophonist David Sills' choice of material was as mature and sophisticated as the way it was presented.

June 25, 1996|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FULLERTON — It was just past dark on a recent Tuesday when saxophonist David Sills took the bandstand at Steamers, the attractive coffeehouse and jazz hang around the corner from the city's sleepy-by-night central business district.

Behind him, bassist Danton Boller, who has been heard in this room with pianist Cecilia Coleman's quintet, struck up a spunky walk with a sound so expansive that it seemed able to support anything. There was a moment of anticipation as Sills stepped forward, closed his eyes to savor the snappy bass line, then put the reed to his lips: What is the tenor man going to play over this riff?

The answer came quickly as Sills swaggered into the familiar verse of "Frankie and Johnnie" in a tone that was full and satisfying. He placed the notes provocatively behind the beat, lingering on the first note before accelerating through the rest of the line. "She was his man, but . . . ."

Guitarist Steve Cotter plugged in and began adding a pulse of chords behind the theme, giving the piece a sophistication that contrasted nicely with Sills' slightly down-and-dirty tack. " . . . She done him wrong."

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It soon was apparent that Sills, 26, is not your usual young saxophonist. His airy, well-pitched sound carries hints of Stan Getz and Lester Young, and he plays with a patience that speaks of maturity. He goes straight to the heart of a lyric, forgoing the flashy excesses of youth, developing the story line during his solos with touches of warm melodicism and the occasional flurry of notes.

From "Frankie," it was on to "It Could Happen to You," "Chelsea Bridge" and tunes from Lennie Tristano and Miles Davis--the choice of material was every bit as mature and sophisticated as the way it was presented. Boller and Cotter proved themselves equally astute.

Sills' skills are no accident. The Manhattan Beach resident picked up the sax in the fourth grade, studied classical saxophone with Leo Potts at Cal State Long Beach and, beginning when he was 17, studied seven years with Gary Foster, who has played in Louie Bellson, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Laurindo Almeida's bands, among others.

Sills' classical studies show in his assured control and technical facility; his work with Foster is reflected in the taste and temper with which he plays. Between sets, he cited Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Getz and Young as influences. Trumpeters Davis and Clifford Brown and pianist Kenny Barron also have had an impact on his thinking.

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He said he is looking forward to recording his first album in July with pianist Coleman, instructor Foster, bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Sherman Ferguson.

Until then, Sills is keeping his craft polished with gigs at Steamers, some appearances with the World Stage Jr. All Stars and the occasional substitute date with Coleman's busy quintet. If ever there was a young talent deserving wider recognition, this is it. David Sills is one of the best emerging saxophonists on the Southern California scene.

* The David Sills Trio plays tonight at Steamers Cafe, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton. 8 p.m. No cover, no minimum. (714) 871-8800.

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