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Sax Player Goes With the Flow

David Sills says his passions for surfing and music are compatible. Both involve focus, dedication and self-discovery.


It's not surprising that David Sills is a surfer. He looks the part--a guy of average height with a wiry build who arrives for an interview wearing a rust-colored T-shirt from Redondo Beach's Dive N' Surf shop ("That's where I buy my wetsuits"), dark shorts and light brown Van's sneakers. Sills lives in Manhattan Beach, where he was born, and tries to surf everyday.

But the 26-year-old is no ordinary surfer. When he's not out on the waves, he's likely to be somewhere playing his tenor saxophone. Possessing a smooth, round sound and an agile improvisational approach, he's one of the top up-and-coming mainstream jazz saxophonists in Southern California. He appears Friday at Jax in Glendale.

Sills started surfing, and playing sax, when he was 10, and he says the two are quite compatible: They both take focus and dedication, and they are both about self-searching, finding a quiet place where you discover who you are and what you are capable of.

"Aside from great exercise, surfing's almost spiritual," he says during a recent interview. "I can relieve all my stress out in the water. If I get up and go surfing, I can sit and play my horn for hours and be relaxed."

As passionate as Sills may be about surfing, he has an even greater ardor for music. "It's the path that I have chosen and I love it," he says. "Music is something where I can be an individual and that's always been important to me."

Sills works hard at his music, as he has since he was in his late teens. Then, excited by John Coltrane's version of "My Favorite Things," he began to explore modern jazz in earnest and was thrilled by what he discovered.

"I loved the band on that record, how it made me feel," he says, speaking softly. "I liked the musical colors, the harmonies, the combination of Coltrane's soprano, McCoy Tyner's piano, all these different sounds."

Earlier in his life, Sills had a similar enthusiasm for the big-band jazz of Benny Goodman and Count Basie, to which he was introduced by his father. "I dug swing because it was different; I could hear the passion, the fire," he says. "Even though the music was so old, it felt like it was cutting edge. There was a bite, a certain hipness."


Sills, who earned a bachelor of music degree in classical saxophone from Cal State Long Beach in 1993, blends both swing and modern modes into a style that many listeners will find distinctive.

"I have elements of a bebop player, elements of a more melodic, West Coast style like Stan Getz, a lightness like Lester Young, all these different influences," he says. "But I never try to copy anyone. I just play what I hear, and I feel that it comes out [sounding like] me."

At Jax, Sills will work with pianist Cecilia Coleman, bassist Danton Boller and drummer Kendall Kay, delivering standards and jazz tunes with what he intends to be subtlety.

"I'm not an in-your-face, loud person," he says. "I'm into letting things speak for themselves. I want my music to reach listeners through their appreciation of something I have done, not force them into digging it by using tricks."

Sills acknowledges he's been aided in his quest for music by several fine teachers, among them Charles Orena ("He was the first one to show me about playing jazz"), Gary Foster ("Through him, I found out that being a great player depends more on hard work than talent") and Leo Potts, with whom he studied at Cal State Long Beach. "The gist of his teaching is that if you play the horn correctly, the music will play itself."

As for what a life in music is like, the musician figures he's too young to know. "Ask me when it's over," he says, cracking a smile.

* David Sills plays 9 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Friday at Jax, 339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. No cover, no minimum. Call: (818) 500-1604.

Short Take: Lanny Morgan, the alto saxophonist with the bubbling sound and convivial bebop-bent style, plays with Danny Pucillo's trio tonight through Saturday at Monty's Steakhouse (5371 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Woodland Hills; 7:30-11:30 p.m. tonight, 8:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m Friday and Saturday; no cover, no minimum; [818] 716-9736).

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