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Versatility Is Instrumental to His Success

Carl Saunders, adept at playing trumpet, drums and piano, performs this weekend at J.P.'s Lounge.


A legend from the '60s has it that during a rehearsal with his big band, high-note jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson left the room only to return and find his lead alto saxophonist, Dick Spencer, doing a dandy job of playing his horn. Not to be outdone, Ferguson picked up Spencer's alto and also sounded like a pro.

Carl Saunders could have fit right into that scene. Like Ferguson and Spencer, he's a natural musician. "Music comes easy to me," he says without bragging. Saunders' main instrument is the trumpet, which he picked up in his early teens and taught himself to play ("I was never a practicer"). He even faked his way into the Stan Kenton band at age 18, without being able to read music very well.

"Stan had me audition on a tune that I knew the trumpet part by heart," Saunders says. He went on to play with bandleaders like Si Zentner, Ferguson, Harry James, Bobby Sherwood (his uncle) and, more recently, Bob Florence, Frank Capp and Bill Holman.

Saunders also plays drums and piano. He picked them up the same way he did trumpet: by osmosis.

"I grew up in a musical family. My grandmother played piano, and when she finished practicing a piece, I knew it, too," says the Indianapolis native who was raised in both Los Angeles and Las Vegas. In 1984, he settled in the San Fernando Valley, where he currently lives.

As for learning the drums, he says, "I just watched drummers play, and when I sat down at the drum set, I could do it."

Saunders was good enough on drums to fill in one night in 1978 with Harry James' band in Las Vegas; he had played with James as a trumpeter in 1966. "I didn't have chops, but I played real good time," he says.

This weekend, Saunders, 54, will exhibit his dual talents, playing trumpet Friday at J.P.'s Lounge in Burbank with his quartet, then sitting behind his drums Saturday in the same room as his trio backs singer Michie Sahara.

Friday will be something of a coming-out party: Big-band vet Saunders will make his Los Angeles debut as a leader. Question: What took him so long?

"I've never really wanted to chase the club owners, trying to get a night here or there," he says simply.

Saunders might have been content to let sleeping dogs lie had he not been a hit at two KLON (88.1 FM) mini-festivals, 1995's "Jazz West Coast," where he played in several small groups, and this year's "Blowin' Up a Storm," a four-day event that celebrated big bands. Saunders, by his own admission, was one of the bash's stars.

"I played a solo on Bill Holman's version of 'What's New' and got not a standing ovation, but a jumping ovation," he says, laughing.

Then Loren Little, a Las Vegas friend, put up the money to produce Saunders' first CD, "Out of the Blue," due out next week. The album features pianist Roger Kellaway among other luminaries, and on two tracks Saunders overdubs trumpet parts, becoming a one-man section.

At J.P.'s, Saunders will offer basic jazz and standard repertoire, perhaps delivering a favorite like "Stella by Starlight" or Miles Davis' "Solar."

"I play trumpet like I don't need to breathe because I hear lines that don't stop," he says. "And I developed a way of breathing, using less air, less effort, that's enabled me to play longer."

Saunders' approach accents the pretty notes. "I like beauty," he says.

* Carl Saunders plays trumpet Friday and drums Saturday, 9 p.m.-1:30 a.m. both nights, at J.P.'s Lounge, 1333 Hollywood Way, Burbank. No cover, no minimum. (818) 845-1800.


Do Tell: Mark Winkler, a man with a jazz-based way around a song, offers his take on Tinseltown with a cabaret show called "Tales From Hollywood," tonight at 8 and 10 p.m. at the Moonlight Tango Cafe (13730 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; $5 cover, $9.95 food or drink minimum; [818] 788-2000).


Apple Bound: Kyle Eastwood, bass-playing son of actor-director Clint Eastwood, makes his Carnegie Hall debut next month, playing with his quartet on an evening dedicated to his father's love of music. Eastwood's quartet, just about ready to record its first album for Columbia Records, plays at 9 p.m. Wednesday at Jax in Glendale (339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale; no cover, no minimum; [818] 500-1604).

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