Grubbs' sax-savvy suite swings to a Baltimore beat Sweet Harbor JAZZ

March 23, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore took some getting used to, confesses Carl Grubbs.

The jazz saxophone player from Philadelphia went to school on the music of that city's legendary tenor man, John Coltrane. He made a name for himself in Philadelphia clubs and in a series of Coltrane-inspired albums recorded there.

"Philly was fast, and I could move all the time. . . . Here, the only thing I'd see on the street in the daytime is a dog and the mailman," says Mr. Grubbs. "It took me a while to slow myself down. Sometimes, I still have to work at it."

But you can hear, in the soft-spoken musician's work, how

Baltimore has grown in his affections since his move here in 1980.

Tonight, he offers jazz fans a chance to share some impressions of his adopted city by attending a recording session of his composition "Inner Harbor Suite" at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The performance, with a quintet and vocalist, starts at 7:30.

"I play a lot better when there are people out there than when I'm standing in front of a microphone. It's great to have that live sound coming back at you," he says.

"We've invited some of our most vocal friends," says Barbara Grubbs, Carl's wife and the "B" in their company, B&C Productions.

They plan to release "Inner Harbor Suite" later this year on cassette.

"Carl Grubbs and Friends," their first album, was also recorded live in a local setting, the New Haven Lounge in northeast Baltimore in 1993. (Mr. Grubbs and his group will be performing "Inner Harbor Suite" Friday night at the club, in the Northwood Shopping Center on Argonne Avenue; for information, call 366-7416).

But Mr. Grubbs, 49, who plays alto and (like Coltrane) soprano sax, says he wanted the concert stage setting of the BMA auditorium for his five-movement "Inner Harbor Suite."

L "This is a place everyone can come; kids can come," he says.

The museum has played a significant role in the way the musician's work has evolved since his move to Baltimore.

"When I first came here, I was just a jazz musician who stood on a stage and played," he says. Over the years he moved into teaching and a kind of jazz outreach.

From 1980 to 1985 he commuted to Washington, where he ran the D.C. Jazz Workshop Orchestra. In Baltimore, he later co-founded the Maryland Center for Creative Music. He has regularly presented jazz workshops for young people and other audiences at such places as Artscape, the Walters Art Gallery, The Bau House (now defunct) and, often, the BMA.

"Carl has always been a friend to the museum and has performed here often," says Deborah Tunney, museum programs director. "When he asked if he could record here, I said, 'Great, let's do it.' "

Mr. Grubbs says his outreach activities -- including six years as an adjudicator for the Maryland State Scholarship Committee, which awards arts scholarships to high school students -- have deepened his understanding of his own music.

"When you work with other people, you get a chance to deal with who you are, too. It has given me a chance to learn something about myself I didn't know. I'm really excited to work with kids," he says. Mr. Grubbs has taught at Boys Latin and St. Paul's schools, and he has also worked as a substitute teacher in the city school system.

Tonight, Mr. Grubbs will be joined by the same musicians who performed portions of "Inner Harbor Suite" in a recent BMA workshop program. Rained out of a performance in the Levi Sculpture Garden, they moved indoors and played. This gave him the idea of recording in that setting.

His combo comprises Bob Gray of Baltimore on tenor and alto sax; drummer Rashid Rahman of Philadelphia; keyboard player Elmer Gibson of Raleigh; and bassist Cheney Thomas and percussionist Mamadi Nyasuma, both of Washington.

Joining them will be vocalist Maja Rios of Chicago, who has written lyrics to portions of "Inner Harbor Suite." Mr. Grubbs first worked with her two years ago, after she offered lyrics to his song "Glad To Be Sad," which he had recorded in the 1970s.

During a recent interview at his home, Mr. Grubbs pops a cassette into a VCR to show last summer's museum performance of "Inner Harbor Suite."

"Out of all the pieces, this is the one I think people like the most," he says, as the combo swings into "Harborplace."

It's an easy tempo stroll, with Mr. Grubbs' lyrical alto doing an airy improvisation over leisurely rhythms. He began writing it in 1983, after spending three weeks in a jazz workshop at Harborplace.

"That's the impression I got of being there, seeing the boats, people going shopping, people coming in and just walking around, enjoying themselves," he explains.

Isn't it unusual to find jazz music -- often perceived in the way abstract painting is -- so closely tied to a specific place and time? Mr. Grubbs thinks not.

"All of my writing has always been about events or people or places," he says.

So has some of the music of his role model, Coltrane. A cut on Mr. Grubbs' first album is Coltrane's "Naima," written for Coltrane's first wife -- who also happened to be Mr. Grubbs' cousin.

What: "Carl Grubbs & Friends," a live recording session

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Charles and 31st streets

Cost: $5; museum members free

Information: 944-6512; 396-6314

If you can't go, but want to hear jazz saxophonist Carl Grubbs playing his composition "Neptune," from the album "Carl Grubbs and Friends," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6114 after you hear the greeting.

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