Posted on Wed, Apr. 20, 2005

Octobop employs a '50s play ethic

Special to the Mercury News

The myth of the starving artist is one of the Romantic movement's most pernicious legacies. Exactly how is someone's creativity enhanced by insecurity about food and shelter?

I was thinking about the enduring notion that scuffling somehow enhances artistic authenticity while talking to saxophonist Geoff Roach, the guiding spirit behind Octobop, a South Bay band dedicated to the intricate arrangements associated with 1950s West Coast jazz.

The eight-piece group, which celebrates the release of its third album, ``After Dark,'' Friday at Espresso Garden, is made up of musicians who mostly have pursued careers outside music for much of their lives.

Featuring trombonist Mike Humphrey, who toured with Ray Charles and studied with Duke Ellington alum Britt Woodman, former Southern California session musician Matt Kesner on saxophone, trumpeter Randy Smith, vibraphonist Bill Hazzard, guitarist Jack Conway, bassist David Kopf and drummer Roy Kaufmann, Octobop is distinguished by its pianoless instrumentation.

With a cast that includes a research scientist from Sun Microsystems, a retired Silicon Graphics high performance computer engineer and an intellectual property lawyer who was on the Apple team that launched the MacIntosh, the band's roster of day gigs is also fairly unusual.

``Most of us have tech backgrounds, or something related to it,'' says Roach, who has worked as a marketing vice president at several Valley start-ups. ``People often say, `You guys aren't a real band because you're not starving musicians.' Sometimes people don't take you seriously, but we're very serious and passionate about this music. This stuff is not easy to play.''

Octobop's repertoire is drawn from the highly inventive work of arrangers such as Shorty Rogers, Marty Paich, Bill Holman and Gerry Mulligan. The band is good enough that saxophonist Dave Pell, a seminal figure of the 1950s West Coast jazz scene, is joining the group as a special guest at Espresso Garden. Pell is also distributing the group's CD on the label he created to reissue some of the nearly three dozen albums he recorded in the '50s and '60s, sessions featuring jazz greats such as Art Pepper, Jack Sheldon, Frank Capp and Don Fagerquist.

``When Geoff asked me if I'd be interested in the album, I said, `Well, let me listen to it,' '' says Pell, 80, from his home in Los Angeles. ``I listened to it and said, `You got it! We'll put it out immediately.' I love the idea of coming up and playing with them.''

Roach first contacted Pell several years ago while tracking down arrangements for Octobop, and ``After Dark'' includes two pieces from Pell's popular 1950s octet, a beautiful, multi-linear Holman chart of ``The Way You Look Tonight'' and a playful Paich arrangement of ``Mountain Greenery.''

As with many of the Octobop charts, Roach had to tailor the arrangements for the band's pianoless instrumentation. Over the years, he has acquired an impressive array of material.

``It's amazing. You actually call up somebody and say, `Hey, I'm interested in playing your stuff. Can you help me out?' And it's rare that they'll turn you down,'' Roach says. ``Bud Shank was nice enough to let me use some of his music. The first time I met Franca Mulligan, Gerry's widow, she was nice enough to let me copy most of his charts from `Rebirth of the Cool,' '' Gerry Mulligan's early 1990s re-creation of the classic charts from Miles Davis' 1950s nonet sessions known as ``The Birth of the Cool.''

As a baritone saxophonist, Roach was long drawn to the work of Mulligan, who helped spark the West Coast jazz movement, though he spent relatively little time in Southern California.

Other L.A. bandleaders such as Rogers, Shelly Manne and Howard Rumsey developed large followings, but West Coast jazz came to be seen by many critics as a creative dead end, particularly when compared to East Coast bands led by Art Blakey and Horace Silver. (For an invaluable debunking of coastal cliches, see Ted Gioia's book ``West Coast Jazz.'')

``The thing I like about this whole period of West Coast jazz is that it was not only a musician's music, it was a writer's music,'' Roach says. ``I like to write and arrange, and this gives me a venue to do that. I pay a lot of attention not only to Mulligan's playing but his writing, and to guys like Paich, Rogers, Bill Holman and Bob Florence. These guys wrote some incredible music that's a bunch of fun to play.''

The sense of fun comes through clearly on ``After Dark.'' For the musicians involved in the group now, the opportunity to work with a disciplined group of players dedicated to little-heard music is a dream come true. Bassist David Kopf, for instance, was a founding member of the jazz band at the University of California-Berkeley in the early '70s before he went off to Harvard Law School. He sees a similar passion for music in many of his Octobop band mates.

``We were all great in our high schools, colleges and honor bands, but most of us didn't decide to be musicians,'' Kopf says. ``My mom said, `Sure, be a musician if you want to starve.' Though lots of my family members went to conservatory, I'm the guy with the day job. We're not going to make anybody forget Mulligan or Coltrane. Our point is to make people remember them. And we caught Pell's ear. That's cool!''