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'Three' Is a Charm

Santa Barbara's Theo Saunders has a new record contract and a fine trio album. He regularly plays at local venues.


When it comes to notable jazz players who live and perform locally, the dynamic pianist Theo Saunders tops the list. On almost any given week, you can catch Saunders in action around Santa Barbara and Ventura.

What you're hearing, though, is much more than a workaday pianist on the job: Saunders has a keen ability to maintain a sharp focus and a limber attitude, to experiment and keep improvisational fire at the forefront. He's a thinking person's jazz player, with a bounty of chops and a solid sense of musical purpose.

As of last month, he's also a man with a new record contract. The fine trio album "Three for All" was released on the new Blue Chip label, the first of five slated recordings for Saunders. This is his third album as a leader, after "Sue Blue," a 1978 recording for Discovery (as Teddy Saunders), and "High Standards," a group effort with guitarist Mike Stern and others, for Polydor in 1983.

Saunders, born and raised in New York, headed west several years ago, settling first in Ojai and then moving to Santa Barbara. He has an impressive resume that includes gigs with the likes of Carla Bley, Stern, Pharoah Sanders, Zoot Sims and Freddie Hubbard.

"Three for All" is a ruggedly fine documentation of both Saunders' playing and the trio's ensemble sound. Saunders started playing with bassist Chris Symer and drummer Michael Stephans several years ago, performing almost every Saturday night at the Sea Cove, now called Ruby's, in Santa Barbara. The steady gig provided a workshop in which they honed both their sound and their empathy with each other.


When forming the trio, Saunders was thinking of more than a Saturday night diversion. "I wasn't thinking in terms of casual gigs. It was really the first time I'd had a trio for any length of time at all," he said. "The concept was to use it as a vehicle to express what I wanted to express at the time, and continue to do so."

Saunders recorded the new CD in Los Angeles and then hoped for the best, but was prepared to release it himself.

"Today's market is oriented toward younger, up-and-coming musicians and I had basically been out of the scene, not living in a major media center for quite awhile," he said. "So it was surprising to me to be able to pick up a record deal at my age. I feel blessed."

In assembling the CD, Saunders sought order, cohesion and contrast. "I tried to put it together with aesthetics in mind, in terms of the combination of the material and the order of the tunes and the tempos and the keys. When I put the order of the tunes together, I tried to make sure there was balance between show tunes and jazz tunes and originals. I tried to pick things that aren't [played too often], like 'Cry Me a River.' That isn't played much, but it should be. It's a beautiful song."


Saunders has a way of rethinking standards, putting them into new contexts. The most dramatic example on this album is his syncopated version of the Miles Davis tune "Nardis," which has "that Middle Eastern Latin feel," he said, laughing.

"The first time I did that, I was on a gig with Freddie Hubbard at a club in Oakland. Bobby Hutcherson was on the gig and the trio was with Ralph Penland and Jeff Chambers. They wanted us to come out and do a trio number first. I had been working on this little arrangement of 'Nardis.' We got a really wonderful response from the audience, and Bobby Hutcherson told me afterward that he really liked it."

It's obvious to anyone who has heard Saunders live, or even on his new release, that Thelonious Monk's influence looms large. With his punning original "In a Sentimonkal Mood," Monk's "Misterioso" and Saunders' often jagged jocularity of approach, the Monk imprint is easy to detect.

"I didn't like him at first," Saunders said, "not when I first heard him as a teenager. But then after getting bored with so many other pianists, I started to realize what a great musician he was. I've been a Monk fan for the past 25 years or so. I love his humor and the originality."

Opportunities to hear what Saunders is all about are ample these days. In the month of August, he'll play no fewer than six times at 66 California, every Sunday night at the Biltmore in Santa Barbara and twice at the Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood. On Aug. 27, Saunders will take his trio into the Jazz Bakery in Culver City for the first time. The man gets around, with and without his piano.


Two months ago, Saunders headed up north to play with the eminent veteran saxophonist James Moody, whose new album is the potent and richly arranged "Young at Heart" on Warner Bros.

"James is such an inspiration," Saunders said. "He actually turned 71 while we were up there--they had a party for him. But he's still so into developing new harmonic ideas and working on the music every day. His apartment was above mine, and I could hear him practicing every day. He had a piano and he was working out different licks. . . . It was a lot of fun and a real honor. He's one of the legends."

As an emigre to Santa Barbara, Saunders is something of a stellar fish in a not-very-big pond, but he seems happily ensconced. "You give up something being here, which in my case is having constant contact with jazz players. . . . They're all in the major cities. Even in L.A., although it's only an hour and a half away, I'm not thought of as being an L.A. jazz musician, so I'm not at the top of the list for being called for gigs.

"On the other hand, when I'm in L.A., I love driving home to Santa Barbara. I still get my fair share of things. I feel blessed to be able to live in Santa Barbara and get a call to work with James Moody in Seattle. Getting a record deal blew my mind, too."


* WHAT: The Theo Saunders Trio.

* WHEN: 8:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Friday.

* WHERE: 66 California restaurant, 66 S. California St., Ventura.

* CALL: 648-2266.

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