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Room for Improv Men: Jazz RX rejuvenate the legacy

Two years ago, Emiliano Rodriguez set up a weekly jazz gig in Long Beach, but the venture fell flat, which left the guitarist wondering why California's fifth-largest city couldn't support his swinging sounds. "We have a jazz station here, there are jazz players, all the local schools have programs, but where are they performing? And when a new venue opens up, they do smooth jazz instead of straight-ahead stuff," he says.

Rodriguez had shifted his focus to his day jobs teaching at Long Beach City College and Renaissance High School for the Arts—and to his own creative impulses—when he found his musical confidant in trumpeter/friend Rick Berry. The duo knew each other for about a year through the Long Beach jazz community, but they started Jazz Rx (pronounced Jazz Prescription) when a chance conversation in late 2006 with DiPiazza's Restaurant and Lounge owner Mark diPiazza rekindled the improv flame. DiPiazza challenged the pair to give jazz in Long Beach another shot and booked the then-inchoate group a show every other Friday. Rodriguez and Berry, a LBCC student, looked inward and picked the best jazz players at the school to round out the sextet, which includes bassist James Roach, drummer Arturo Ramirez, saxophonist Robby Spengler (composer of "Rhythm Doctors," the group's sole original song to date) and percussionist Khalid Rahh.

Jazz Rx performed their first show in January and continue to play to standing-room-only crowds. Berry admits the band initially played to "our moms and friends," but word-of-mouth approval from jazz fans has increased their fan base to the point where even their mothers now need reservations.

The group's popularity stems from a unique approach that takes the hassle out of the nightclubbing experience. Jazz Rx play well-known cool jazz, bop and Latin jazz tunes from John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente and Thelonious Monk for free from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. This combination helps weekend warriors ease into their Friday-night fun by shelling out cash for Italian dinners and drinks rather than an inflated cover charge.

Their unexpected success has shifted the group's attention from being a part-time ensemble to looking at the big picture. Berry and Rodriguez want to expand their shows to feature other acts, but Rodriguez says they aren't ready to branch out just yet. "I've thought about the long term," he says, "but we're trying to use this group of students and go with that for right now."

Like many musical genres, jazz has numerous subdivisions. Jazz Rx's repertoire runs 60 songs deep, with six new tracks played at each show. Rodriguez and Berry's decision to spotlight bop, cool and Latin jazz makes adding material simple because each believes these formats best represent the ever-changing nature of their improvisation-based format. "When people think of jazz, they're thinking along the lines of cool and hard bop," Rodriguez says. "Those are often the most accessible styles." Jazz Rx's revitalization of those styles is exactly what the doctor ordered.

JAZZ RX PERFORM AT DIPIAZZA'S RESTAURANT AND LOUNGE, 5205 E. PACIFIC COAST HWY., LONG BEACH, (562) 498-2461; WWW.DIPIAZZAS.COM . FRI. AND EVERY SECOND FRIDAY OF THE MONTH, 5:30-7:30 P.M. FREE. FOR MORE BAND INFORMATION, GO TO WWW.MYSPACE.COM/JAZZRX .

 
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