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Hard Jazz


Tenor saxophonist Greg Thompkins leans into the music as if he's searching for something very important and very elusive in the composition he's playing.

The new gold-tone neck on his silver sax glitters in the bright light of the room where he's rehearsing the Greg Thompkins Quintet for the first Baltimore Jazz Composers Showcase on Sunday afternoon at the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center.

He's a big guy with a big sound and a gentle manner. On his left, Scott Tiemann, his coolly impassive drummer, listens carefully as he plays. On his right, Brian Kooken, his intense guitar player, is deeply involved with the music. Lafayette Gilchrist, a brilliant young piano player, is out front in one of his trademark caps; Ashton Fletcher, the veteran bass player, is a few steps away, engrossed in the tune.

They're playing at Fletcher's house in Rosedale, crammed into what looks to be a family room, except for the instruments all over the place. It's getting on to midnight on a recent Tuesday night, the one time all these professional musicians can get together. They've been rehearsing since 10 p.m.

They're working on Phoebe Myhill's composition "Jump in Jack", which she's dedicated to the quintet. She's one of eight composers whose work they will play Sunday. She's tagged as a composer of concert music with a deep interest in jazz.

The quintet works hard on her piece to bring it off. None of the eight works on the program is easy.

"On most all of the tunes," Thompkins says, "there's a little bit of that type of work that has to be done. Different parts of the structure may have to be pulled out and worked on. Whether it's the rhythm, or it's the harmony, or it's the melody. On some of the pieces any of those parts can be the more challenging."

The Baltimore Jazz Alliance and the Baltimore Composers Forum joined forces to showcase the composers. George F. Spicka, a pianist-composer who is co-president of the composers forum and on the jazz alliance's steering committee, has been instrumental in getting the concert together.

"To me, the Baltimore jazz scene has really turned a major corner when you can have so many composers write excellent tunes," Thompkins says.

"And," he adds, "the guys in the band are either all excellent players or composers themselves who are going to sit down and tear those pieces apart and put them back together and then go perform them."

The quintet will play Spicka's composition, "Emerald Raindrops," which features singer Charlene Cochran on the only vocal tune on the program. The co-president of the composers forum, Stephen Makofski, has a piece titled "Clutter" on the bill.

"In a way it's almost a minimalistic classical piece," Thompkins says. "It reminds me a little of Philip Glass."

The Baltimore-born Glass, an important avant-garde composer, wrote original music for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.

At the rehearsal, the quintet brings Myhill's "Jump in Jack" to a halt like a slightly uneasy drill team.

"All I can say is this is much better than it was," Thompkins says. "But we still got some things to figure out. To me the main thing is mastering the form and being able to nail it every time."

In conversation about the gig, Thompkins offers thumbnail sketches of each of the composers whose works the quintet will play.

"Phil Ravita is a very good bass player. I've played gigs with Phil," he says. Ravita's piece is "Hard at Work," essentially a vehicle for solo bass, which Fletcher will play.

"Todd Marcus has an excellent big band," Thompkins says. "Excellent bass clarinetist, composer."

The quintet will play Marcus' "Ma'aelsalamal," "good-bye-God bless" in Arabic. The tune draws on his Egyptian heritage. Such formidable jazz luminaries as Greg Osby, Michael Formanek and Gary Thomas have played Marcus' works.

"Al Maniscalco, tenorman, very nice player, wrote a very nice piece in three," Thompkins says.

Called "Rainy Wednesday," it's a jazz waltz. Maniscalco, who has a master's degree from Towson University, has played with an amazing range of people and groups, from Branford Marsalis to Little Anthony and the Imperials.

"Anthony Villa's piece is almost like a crossover fusion piece," Thompkins says. "This piece kind of reminds me of the group Weather Report." That's the revered jazz-fusion quartet of the '70s and '80s.

Called "Words Unspoken," Villa's composition requires a band that plays together a lot and rehearses a lot.

"It would be hard to come to the gig and say 'OK, let's put this music up and play it,'" Thompkins says. "There are so many different parts in it. You really have to learn the piece."

Brian Smith, whose tune on the program is called Perception, plays piano with the Coldspring Jazz Quartet.

"This is a very nicely written bossa nova," Thompkins says. "I think the pianist and guitar player will be the main players on this one.

''You have to figure out who's going to be the soloist [on each tune]," he says. "You can't have five soloists on every tune. God knows I don't want to solo on every tune!"

If you go

What: The first Baltimore Jazz Composers Showcase

Who: The Greg Thompkins Quintet, presenting the works of Stephen Makofski, Al Maniscalco, Todd Marcus, Phoebe Myhill, Phil Ravita, Brian Smith, George F. Spicka and Anthony D. Villa.

Where: Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center. 847 North Howard St.

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $20; $15 for seniors, students and members of Baltimore Composers Forum and Baltimore Jazz Alliance.

Information: 443-285-2636.

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