For much of his career, Oakland saxophonist Steve Heckman has worshipped at the altar of John Coltrane, with every gig a veritable quest to attain the spiritually charged intensity that defined Trane’s epochal recordings of the early 1960s. He left no doubt about his mission with first two albums, 2003’s With John In Mind and 2005’s Live at Yoshi’s. But his new CD, Born To Be Blue, finds Heckman in a more lyrical state of mind, focusing on American Songbook standards like Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean,” Van Heusen’s “I Thought About You,” and Schwartz’s “Alone Together.”
He celebrates the album’s release Saturday at the Jazzschool with a stellar Bay Area band featuring guitarist Terrence Brewer, bassist Aaron Germain, drummer Bryan Bowman, and tenor saxophonist Rob Roth. Heckman credits his new direction on Born To Be Blue to his collaboration with guitar ace Howard Alden, which evolved out of a casual evening of jamming after a dinner party at a friend’s house in New York. When Alden came through the Bay Area several months later for a series of gigs they cemented the budding friendship at Fantasy Studios, with the guitarist’s beautifully calibrated phrasing inspiring a more lithe and relaxed sound from Heckman.
“I’m definitely evolving,” says Heckman, a reed expert who plays tenor and alto sax, clarinet and bass clarinet. “Howard comes from a much more straight ahead tradition and it was a matter of meeting him half way. Actually, it was very refreshing that I didn’t have to keep up that high level of intensity. I have a hankering for the American Songbook. The melodies inspire me so much. I think they’re timeless. I try to do that in my own writing and improvising, make melodies that people remember.”
Born and raised in New York City, Heckman got an early boost as a high school student in the late 1960s from the great bebop trumpeter Howard McGhee, who was trying to rebuild a career shattered by addiction. Playing at a Central Park jam session, Heckman made a strong impression on the veteran hornman, who hired him for several gigs and tried to recruit him for a band he was looking to take on the road.
“Howard wanted me to drop out of high school but he didn’t have a solid itinerary, so I don’t have any regrets about not taking him up on the offer,” says Heckman, who notes that at the same time a friend who was taking lessons with Roswell Rudd eased him into several gigs with the visionary trombonist’s Blues for the Planet Earth, a heavyweight ensemble with masters like Beaver Harris, Perry Robinson, Charles Davis, and Roland Alexander.
As an undergraduate at SUNY’s Binghampton University he formed a high-energy fusion band with pianist Bliss Rodriguez (who also ended up in the Bay Area), while graduate studies at University of Illinois at Urbana– Champaign brought him into the orbit of pianist/arranger Jim McNeely, who went on to jazz renown with saxophone greats Stan Getz and Phil Woods.
While he was getting his bebop chops together tackling McNeely’s sophisticated charts, Heckman spent his days in the classroom studying psychology. He came to the Bay Area in 1977 to continue his studies at the California School of Professional Psychology, which was based for many years in Berkeley. He’s long divided his time between working as a psychologist and gigging as a musician. Retired after years on staff at Kaiser, he writes medical legal reports for worker’s comp claims, but he’s generally kept his day gig on the down low, after numerous experiences with people approaching him after performances seeking advice.
“I met Tony Williams at a party and he only wanted to talk psychology,” Heckman says, referring to the late great jazz drummer who lived for many years in Pacifica.
He found making his way on the Bay Area scene slow going, but Heckman landed an important gig in 1979 in the band of another improviser with a demanding day job. After a stint in Herbie Hancock’s great ensemble Mwandishi, trumpeter Eddie Henderson was still working as doctor when he hired Heckman for what turned into a yearlong run at Berkeley’s Scarab Club. The group featured a dazzling pianist attending Berkeley High named Benny Green (Henderson largely gave up medicine when he moved to New York a few years later).
Always seeking to make his own statement, Heckman released his debut album a decade ago, a process that required overcoming “a lot of obstacles, mostly inner demons,” he says. “I had confidence issues. Putting out your own album takes an act of courage. I came up at a time that’s not like today when anyone can put a CD together. The idea was to wait until you have something to say, and I felt I was ready.”
While Saturday’s concert shows off his mellower side, he hasn’t disavowed his passion for Coltrane. He returns to Berkeley on Oct. 18 for a performance dedicated to Trane at the Hillside Club with pianist Grant Levin, bassist Eric Markowitz, and drummer Smith Dobson V. Whether he’s interpreting standards or exploring an original composition inspired by Coltrane’s modal flights, he pursues the same scintillating vision.
“I hear a lot of impressive young players writing energetic music with intricate lines that can’t remember a few minutes later,” Heckman says. “We’re in tumultuous times, and my reaction is not so much to reflect them but to offer an antidote, to offer something of beauty.”
Recommended gig: David Serva
Flamenco guitar legend David Serva, who attended Berkeley High when his father Victor Jones served as an esteemed political science professor at Cal, returns to town for a performance Sunday as part of the 8th Annual Bay Area Flamenco Festival. He also participates tonight in a panel discussion at La Peña moderated by Berkeley writer Paul Shalmy focusing on a slideshow of photos curated by guitarist Steve Kahn documenting the experience of Americans who traveled to Spain in the 1960s and 70s seeking out flamenco.
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
This fall’s hottest ticket? Berkeleyside’s Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas is two days of provocative thinking, inspiring speakers, workshops, and a big party — all in downtown Berkeley in October. Be a part of it. Register on the Uncharted website.