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By Mike Seeley
A few years back, I finagled a pair of front-row seats for a Wynton Marsalis concert at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. There's no doubting the trumpeter's technique and vast knowledge of jazz, but his stage presence has always left me cold. That night was no different. I might as well have been in the balcony; the superstar Marsalis spoke barely a word to the audience.
But local jazz and blues singer Karen Gallinger shares my passion for bridging the gap between artist and performer. As organizer/hostess of the Sessions at the Grand Central, her intention is to create an alternative concert-going experience—The Charlie Rose Show meets Inside the Actor's Studio and Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz.
A monthly concert/interview series, Sessions debuted last month with the Ron Escheté Trio and continues Tuesday with neo-bop ensemble Tu Bop and Aug. 7 with Latin-jazz horn player Tony Guerrero. It works like this: the featured group performs a few songs. Gallinger interviews the group. Audience members are invited to ask questions. The band gets back to playing more music, with Gallinger joining on lead vocals for a song or two.
The idea behind this unique series—held at the 70-seat Grand Central Arts Theatre in Santa Ana's Artists Village—is interaction, the kind that provides a glimpse into the creative process.
"You can see Ron Escheté play at Steamers or Kikuya, but what we're doing here is providing a platform for him to share his ideas about music so you can gain some insight into his vision," says Gallinger. "All the musicians I've asked to participate have been intrigued by the concept because they want their art to be understood. This is a rare chance for them to share their journey."
Whether playing bebop, ballads or the blues, Escheté is a sophisticated guitarist who has worked with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson and, most recently, Diana Krall. He is currently performing and recording a mix of standards and originals with his trio, which includes six-string bassist Todd Johnson and drummer Kendall Kaye.
The soft-spoken Escheté was at first rather quiet during his debut Sessions appearance. But when Gallinger peppered him with a few good questions, he loosened up and got almost chatty, talking about everything from the influence of guitarist George Van Epps to "avoiding train wrecks" to wanting his guitar to sound like Nelson Riddle.
It wasn't unusual to hear Escheté, a master of the seven-string guitar, explain that he got into jazz because he saw "unlimited and untapped possibilities" in the guitar. But it was strange to hear that he got his first guitar at age 14 because he wanted to be Ricky Nelson, that he fell in love with the blues while listening to then-disc jockey B.B. King spinning records for a radio station in his native Louisiana.
Gallinger wants to engage the audience, to jolt us out of the near-comatose state we frequently occupy. How often do we actively participate in something—anything? And no, using a computer doesn't count.
"People have become so passive, where we're just sitting around watching TV or some rented video," suggests Gallinger. "Even when some folks do go out, it's just to a karaoke bar or something like that. I'm hoping Sessions will shake some people up—or at least give them something different and challenging to think and argue about."
Much to Gallinger's delight, bassist Johnson triggered a lively debate when he asserted that it takes effort to truly appreciate jazz. This opinion met resistance from a young man in the audience who vociferously insisted that music is emotional rather than cerebral—you either like it or you don't.
Simply a difference of opinion. The point, according to Gallinger, is that we got involved.We actually put down the clicker for an evening to listen, learn and question.
One can only guess what will unfold Tuesday night when TuBop, an experimental group that exploits the tuba like crazy, struts its edgy stuff. Whatever develops, let's hope more people experience it than the 20 or so who turned out for the Ron Escheté Trio.
"The Sessions project itself is an act of creation," says Gallinger, who refuses to let those disappointing numbers dampen her enthusiasm. "It's a work in process, and we'll see where it leads us. We're taking small steps first—and then greater strides if things go well."Sessions at Grand Central with Karen Gallinger and special guests TuBop at Grand Central Arts Theatre, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7234. Tues., 8 p.m. $10; dinner packages available through the nearby Gypsy Den Café and Shelley's Courthouse Bistro.