Jazz musician Ken Navarro has found Ellicott City a great place for rearing a family-- and a record company

HOME-GROWN HITS

December 05, 1993|By MARK GUIDERA | MARK GUIDERA,Staff Writer.

L.A. flashback 1989: Guitarist Ken Navarro is happily jamming at a popular Friday afternoon concert series at the University of California. There is a moment during the gig when he looks at the other musicians and this thought twangs in his head:

These people aren't just good, they are very good. This is one untapped pool. WHAT AM I DOING? I should start a recording company. Sign these people up. Heck, I should be recording my own music. . . .

For a year the thought of launching his own recording label and recording his own music stirred in his head. There were moments of doubt.

I have a comfortable life here. Plenty of studio work.

But the dream tugged. So did concern for a saner life for his family.

My kids are going to have to take a bus five miles just to go to school. Is this what we want?

Then came this: We'll move home. Back to Maryland. There's family there. Support. A saner lifestyle. A better house. Kids in the neighborhood for ours to play with. With the right equipment and a phone, I could have a recording studio anywhere.

Anywhere. Even Ellicott City.

These days that's exactly where you'll find Ken Navarro. He's often hunkered down in the basement studio of his home on a quaint cul-de-sac out there where the outward march of Baltimore's suburbia bumps up against the cornfields.

It's there that Mr. Navarro has been at work since bolting the L.A. scene in 1990.

"When you think about it, from a business point of view we should have stayed in L.A. It would have made more sense. But it came down to asking what's going to be best for our children," he recalls.

The Bethesda-born jazz guitarist doesn't long for his L.A. days -- when he jammed routinely with many well-known jazz musicians, such as Dave Koz, "The Arsenio Hall Show's" hot saxophonist, and Doc Severinsen of "Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" fame. After all, he says, Ellicott City is not only saner, it's homier and, well, actually affordable.

"For the past three years I've worked 70-hour weeks and had no vacations," says Mr. Navarro. "I love what I'm doing.

And love for good reason. His five musical releases have enjoyed strong sales and artistic notice. Meanwhile, Positive Music, the recording label he founded, has signed artists who have captured their own measure of artistic and financial success.

There's also find a new public school right out back of the Navarro's Howard County homestead. "In L.A.," says Mr. Navarro, "that would have been a fantasy."

One thing is certain for this 40-year-old. He is not troubled by dreams --ed. His chief worry is how to balance his career as a successful musician while keeping his recording company's enviable track record on course and profitable.

Positive Music, which specializes in progressive and alternative jazz, already claims a bevy of chart toppers. They include "Summerhouse" by keyboardist Gregg Karukas, which reached the No. 1 spot during the first week of September on the Gavin contemporary jazz chart, and No. 3 on a Radio & Records chart. The 10-song compact disc rocketed into the contemporary adult Top 10 just 45 days after hitting the airwaves. Having artists land that high on two of the most-watched national radio play charts in the music industry is a feat few independent labels ever realize.

Meanwhile Mr. Navarro's own upbeat musical releases fly out of record stores across the nation. His May release, "I Can't Complain," jumped into the Top 10 for contemporary jazz in Gavin and Radio & Records. During the last week of July, it nailed the No. 3 spot on both charts.

In the picture at Positive Music for the near future are seven new releases, including the label's first release of Christmas-theme music, and Mr. Navarro's sixth CD, which he plans to title "Pride and Joy."

For the most part, Positive Music issues artists whose music falls into the category called contemporary jazz, a wide-open arena that includes jazz-based music influenced by and fused with pop, folk, rock, R & B and New Age sounds. Mr. Navarro has recorded only two artists specializing in the mainstream, or classical, jazz.

"The one thing I know and know well is contemporary jazz," he says. "Having played this type of music for so long, I've come to the point where if I hear a piece of music and like it, I feel confident others who enjoy contemporary jazz will like it as well."

Mr. Navarro's own music is a mixture of pop, folk and rhythm-and-blues influences set to lively jazz rhythms.

"I like playing music that makes people feel positive," says Mr. Navarro, an affable sort whose workday outfit usually includes a pair of jeans and athletic shoes. "I chose the name Positive Music for the company as a way of letting people know what type of music we offer. There's no deep meaning to the music other than feeling good."

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