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Plenty of Blues and a Little Bit of Bach

Dynamic guitarist Phil Upchurch limbers up with 'Chaconne in D Minor.' The musician is working on a memoir that describes his long, colorful career.


Phil Upchurch and the blues--the two just can't be separated.

"Without some blues, ain't nothin' happening," says guitarist Upchurch, a musical dynamo who has worked with such jazz and pop aces as Dizzy Gillespie, George Benson, Herbie Hancock, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson.

"If you don't dig the blues, you got a hole in your soul," says Upchurch, laughing at this well-worn bit of homey philosophy.

Upchurch, who appears Friday at Bjlauzezs in Sherman Oaks, grew up in Chicago playing urban blues, the kind we associate with blues men like Muddy Waters and James Cotton. But he shifted directions in his late teens when he heard a record by jazz-blues organist Jimmy Smith at a Westside record shop called Eli's.

"As I listened, I said, 'That's the music I want to play,' " says Upchurch, who hit No. 29 on the Billboard pop chart in 1961 with "You Can't Sit Down." "Urban blues is three basic chords. With the blues in jazz, like Jimmy Smith plays, you have all the passing tones. There are no limits."

Smith's albums became Upchurch's "bibles." "He taught me how to play from listening to his records," he says. He got some instruction in person, too, playing with Smith, first in 1965. They worked together on four albums as well, including "Sum Serious Blues" and "Prime Time" (both on Milestone). This fall, Upchurch will play with Smith again in New York and Tokyo.

As much as the blues permeate Upchurch's musical vocabulary, he's learning other musical dialects. For instance, for 10 years he's been tackling J.S. Bach, playing the demanding "Chaconne in D Minor," transcribed for guitar by classical maestro Andres Segovia.

"Segovia would probably break the guitar over my head the way I'm playing," says Upchurch, laughing. Bach, it seems, is a struggle. "It's a self-challenge. But Bach is the swingingest guy on the planet, and the 'Chaconne' is like 14 pages of blowing without a repeat."

Upchurch figures Bach has "loosened me up, improved my aim" as a player, he says. When he plays, the 55-year-old Chicago native gazes intently at the neck of his guitar. His face shifts among expressions of surprise, delight and consternation as he delivers his blues-rich lines and chunky, yet elastic, chords.

"People in school learn to read [music] and look away from the guitar while they play," says Upchurch, who has lived in Los Angeles for 18 years, the last eight in North Hollywood. "But I learned to play by looking at the guitar, watching where my hands went on the neck, like looking at the black and white keys on the piano."

Upchurch acknowledges that he is not a great sight reader, but that has not prevented him from contributing to hundred of recordings by Benson, Hancock, Chick Corea, Quincy Jones and others.

"Most people [in the studios] call me to bend some strings," he says jovially, referring to his propensity for emotional, deep-digging bluesy statements. "If I need to read something, I ask people to send me the music ahead of time, so I can practice it."

At Bjlauzezs, Upchurch will lay out his jazziest side, performing with bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Land Richards such swell titles as John Coltrane's "Lazy Bird," Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti" Charlie Parker's "Scrapple From the Apple" and Bronislaw Kaper's "Invitation."

"These are gorgeous tunes," he says, "and I feel very comfortable playing them."

Upchurch has made 19 albums, "Love Is Strange" being his most recent. He has written a book, "12 x 12: 12 Contemporary Jazz Solos by Phil Upchurch," published by Mel Bay, and is preparing to start a memoir, "Swinging With the Stars," to be co-written with author-pianist Ben Sidran.

The book will detail Upchurch's career--his early days as a session guitarist at Vee Jay Records; playing behind Jerry Butler, the Spaniels and the Moonglows; recording with Muhammad Ali ("Back when he was still Cassius Clay"); and having Bill Clinton play his tune "You Can't Sit Down" at the 1992 inauguration.

"It's been a great life," Upchurch says. "If I never play another note, I'm thankful for the ones I have."

Happy Anniversary: Flutist Holly Hoffman and pianist Bill Cunliffe will offer both pensive and propulsive duets when they appear at the third anniversary of Jazz Vespers, to be held at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the First Lutheran Church in Glendale, 1300 E. Colorado St. Free, donations accepted. Call (213) 245-4000.


Phil Upchurch plays 8:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Friday at Bjlauzezs, 14502 Ventura Blvd., at Van Nuys Boulevard in Sherman Oaks; $5 cover without dinner. Information: (818) 789-4583.

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