For Tony Corman, Five Play is all about second chances. The guitarist and composer co-leads the quintet with his wife, pianist/composer Laura Klein, and the band’s impressive track record speaks to his cussed refusal to let his body betray his passion for music. Featuring reed expert Dave Tidball on saxophones and clarinet, veteran bassist Paul Smith, and drum maestro Alan Hall, Five Play performs 8 p.m. Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory with special guest Ron Horton, a brilliant New York trumpeter who rarely gets to the Bay Area.
When I first met Corman at the North Berkeley house where he and Klein have lived since the mid-1980s he was a formidable tenor saxophonist and I was writing the liner notes to an artfully entertaining album Deconstruction Ahead (SeaBreeze Records) by the horn-laden band Three Tenors No Opera featuring Corman and fellow saxophonists Tidball and Jim Norton. The album received glowing reviews and the band played several high profile gigs, but then Corman seemed to drop out of view, and it was several years before I ran into him and discovered that he had been forced to reinvent himself.
At virtually the same time Deconstruction Ahead came out, Corman was rapidly losing the ability to play the horn due to focal dystonia, a little understood condition that cruelly robs a person’s ability to execute a skilled motor task. A dispiriting epiphany hit him in the midst of a Five Play gig at KCSM’s Jazz On the Hill festival when he realized “it was the last gig I was going to play,” he says. “I didn’t understand what was happening yet. All I knew was something was horribly wrong.”
Like many who suffer from obscure maladies, Corman diagnosed himself via the Internet after reading about focal dystonia, a kind of repetitive stress injury to the mind. With his jaw refusing to grip the saxophone mouthpiece, he considered giving up music entirely, but decided to embark on a “second marriage,” he says. “I’d always loved the guitar, and it was much easier finding a place to practice than with the sax” (Corman details the loss of his chops on his website.
Over the course of a dozen years, he’s attained impressive fluency on the guitar, but what’s most interesting is the continuity in his musical personality from sax to axe. He wrote and arranged five of the 10 tunes on the band’s latest album Five & More (Klein contributed four pieces), and the music is as memorably melodic as his work from his days as a saxophonist.
“Tony brings a really different sensibility to the instrument because of his saxophone background, and he’s expanded his vocabulary,” says Klein, a longtime member of the California Jazz Conservatory faculty. “But it’s still his voice.”
Klein and Corman met in the mid-1970s as students at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, which is also where they started playing with Hall and Tidball. While they all made their way west, another Boston compatriot, trumpeter Ron Horton, moved to New York City in 1982 and gradually gained recognition as a powerfully imaginative player and arranger. He’s probably best known for his work with bandleaders like saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom and pianist Andrew Hill, but his voice as a composer and arranger has sounded most vividly in the Jazz Composers Collective and its spin off Herbie Nichols Project.
“Ron is a wonderful trumpeter, but he doesn’t get out here that much,” Corman says. “We’re really excited that we’ll have six people in the quintet on Saturday. We reorchestrated a lot of this stuff, and took some care to figure out what was going to work well with a two-horn front line so we’re not just throwing him into the mix.”
“We’ll have different combinations where we’ll feature different parts of the band,” Klein adds. “Tony is going to do a duo with Ron, and I’ll do a ballad with him.
Nothing better captures the ambitious creativity that’s fueled Corman’s rebirth than his 17-piece Morechestra, which performs at the CJC on Friday, April 24. Built upon the Five Play, the band features some of the finest players in the region, including saxophonists Steve Heckman and Bob Kenmotsu, trumpeters Steve Campos and Ian Carey, and trombonists Dave Martell and David Otey. This concert also features a special guest, ballad master Ed Reed, who’s making his first appearance with a large ensemble since he performed in the famous warden’s big band during his four stints at San Quentin in the 1950s and ‘60s (an experience he’s been talking about lately in relationship to the documentary Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story, in which he describes singing alongside the great bebop alto saxophonist, who was also incarcerated due to heroin addiction). For Corman, writing for Reed provided an entirely new challenge.
“I’d never arranged around vocalist before,” Corman says. “I’d been getting together with Ed just to play tunes and he was really pleased to be asked. I asked him to pick three tunes he loved, and wrote him bespoke charts.”
“Ed loves doing ballads,” Klein says. “He used to come into the Cheese Board when I was playing there and sit in. No one knew who he was. He’d start singing without a mic, and everyone would get quiet. The first few gigs all he wanted to do was ballads, which is great, but after a while the drummer’s going to go crazy.”
Recommended gig: Karina Deniké at Dave’s Record Shop
Singer, songwriter and Berkeley High alum Karina Deniké celebrates Record Store Day and the release of her gorgeous new album Under Glass with a brief in-store performance at Dave’s Record Shop, 2634 San Pablo Ave. at 4 p.m. Saturday (followed by a brief set by Lily Taylor). For a full taste of her artistry, catch Deniké at Awaken Café at 8 p.m. Friday at Oakland’s Awaken Cafe as part of a triple bill with Tom Lattenand and Lily Taylor.
For more events in and around Berkeley, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. And submit your own events there — the calendar is free and self-serve.