Saxophonist Charles Owens, director of the Luckman Jazz Orchestra at Cal State Los Angeles, knows a valuable player when he hears one.
Trumpeter Nolan Shaheed, 64, has proven to be one of that band's great assets. As a lead player and soloist, Shaheed has been a recording session ace, and has played with the Count Basie Orchestra and the touring bands of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
"He's very dedicated," Owens says. "Nolan's a very good reader but he can play a great solo without knowing the chord changes. He never misses a note and," Owens adds with emphasis, "he can hear around corners. We have a little competition and he can usually hear things that I can't."
Shaheed is in a line of jazz's great brass technicians: Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Booker Little. But he's long sung with his own voice.
"After Nolan executes a line," Owens says, "he'll often add a little signature turn," bringing to mind a master of such short, pungent phrases, the late Harry "Sweets" Edison.
"What Nolan plays is just as unique as Sweets, but he does it his own way."
Shaheed will bring his quintet to Descanso Gardens' free "Music on the Main" series Thursday, Aug. 1. He's particularly proud of his tenor saxophonist.
"Zane Musa is a young genius of the sax," Shaheed says. "We're playing mostly originals; it's kind of an eclectic book. We've got some straight-ahead tunes and some stuff with a funky '60s beat, like Herbie Hancock and Eddie Harris."
Though born in Pasadena in 1949, Shaheed — Nolan Smith, to his mother — was raised in Austin, Texas.
"There were so many great musicians there," he says, "but they refused to leave; it was a comfortable place to live."
He landed in Los Angeles in 1974. At his first professional job, with Aretha Franklin, bandleader H.B. Barnum took notice and tapped the trumpeter for subsequent session work.
In the company of trumpeters like the late Bobby Bryant and Snooky Young, Oscar Brashear and Chuck Findley, Shaheed performed on many records and soundtracks.
"When the chemistry is right," Brashear points out, "the section is tight. Everybody knows what to do and the parts are given to the people who can play them."
Shaheed does more than simply play, however. For close to 20 years, the trumpeter has operated Nolan Shaheed's Recording Studio, which he built himself in Pasadena.
Trombonist George Bohanon is a Motown veteran — both in Detroit and after the label's move to the Southland. He sees the studio as being important to Southern California.
"Nolan's done a lot for the music industry with that," he says. "He's made it possible for a lot of people to record who otherwise couldn't afford it; he's been very generous."
Trumpeter Oscar Brashear says that Shaheed "bubbles over with energy, and has the passion for recording, producing and engineering." He adds: "The price is right and so is the quality."
Long nights of recording, mixing and editing are no doubt made possible by Shaheed's health and constitution. He routinely runs 11 miles and holds a number of world records for athletes aged 40 and older.
Jazz singer Barbara Morrison has logged many CDs at Shaheed's studio.
"I've got one on the charts right now that I did with Nolan," she said after a recent daytime session. "His production is always clean and clear. He's not a great singer but he's a great coach: He knows what you need at any particular moment. He strives for the best 'cause he wants the best for you."
Shaheed approaches the horn with the same degree of diligence.
"I always want to be able to play all the styles," he maintains, "but when it come to jazz, I want to play myself. I never play licks — I like to improvise from scratch."
What: The Nolan Shaheed Quintet
Where: Descanso Gardens, 1418 Descanso Drive, La Cañada Flintridge
When: Thursday, August 1, 6:00 p.m.
Cost: $12 online and $14 at the gate day of the concert
More info: (818) 949-4290, http://www.descansogardens.org
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.