Jaz Sawyer & The Pursuers at San Francisco
“ Every good Jazz band needs to play the blues (in my humble opinion), and these cats didn ”
The Intersection of the Arts, a non-profit located in San Francisco’s historic Mission District, was host to an exciting night of Jazz performed by drummer/composer Jaz Sawyer and the Pursuers, a group of very talented (and young) San Francisco based musicians. The Pursuers are made up of Danny Grewen on trombone and vocals, Joel Ryan on trumpet and flugelhorn, Charles McNeal on alto, tenor and soprano saxophones, and David Ewell on bass. This was the June installment of the Intersection’s monthly Jazz series committed to cultivating and presenting Bay area composers and musicians. Jaz and the Pursuers were introduced to a packed and very receptive audience by Intersection resident composer Marcus Shelby.
The evening started with “Visions Ahead” written by Jaz Sawyer (all music is written and arranged by Jaz Sawyer except where noted otherwise), with David Ewell laying down a smooth rhythmic intro. Ewell is a talented bassist very much on the rise, having graduated from UC Berkely in 1997, and can be seen playing with other avant-garde bands such as the Supplicants. A frontline ensemble intro was followed by an intricate trumpet solo by Ryan, leading into a soprano solo by McNeal, which started slowly, gradually building in intensity and speed. Danny Grewen followed with a velvety trombone solo. The next piece, “Praise”, was a trio of McNeal on Tenor backed by the steady and flowing rhythm of Sawyer on drums and Ewell on bass. McNeal put forth a long solo which ebbed and flowed from sonorous to screaming and back again. These compositions show that while Sawyer has a firm grounding in the traditions of Jazz, he is willing to explore into and beyond post-bop conventions. The Jazz world is taking notice, as Jaz has recorded live at the Blue Note and Village Vangaurd in New York, and has also recorded and performed with such luminaries as Wynton Marsalis, Abbey Lincoln, Bobby Hutcherson, Cyrus Chessnut, and many others.
Every good Jazz band needs to play the blues (in my humble opinion), and these cats didn’t disappoint with a rendition of “September in the Rain” (composed by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin), featuring trombonist (and tenor) Danny Grewen on vocals. Solos by Ryan on trumpet, McNeal on Tenor, and Grewen on trombone all showed that these guys are just as comfortable playing straight ahead blues as they are with the more progressive and complex pieces written by Sawyer. This was followed by “The Love” which featured Ewell creating another intricate bass intro, complemented by high intensity solos by Ryan and McNeal (this time on Alto).
Sawyer and Ewell took the spotlight next, with a unique duet between drums and bass called “Duel with Ewell”. Jaz used a pair of mallets for this piece, which started out with a long set of 8-12 bar exchanges with Ewell, echoing each other’s accelerating and decelerating tempos, leading into a duet, and continuing into a bass melody. Jaz made use of his elbow on the snare to create some interesting effects. The first set concluded with the full ensemble back in action on another Sawyer composition called “Spontaneity”. By this time the enthusiastic audience was definitely in agreement with what long time San Francisco Jazz Critic Philip Elwood has stated, “Intersection is a perfect place for new music as well as other artistic expression. The feeling of community, togetherness, surrounds the place even before the music starts”.
24 year old Sawyer credits Bay Area fixtures (and legends) Eddie Marshall and John Santos as early influences on his development; the story goes that a young Jaz often sat on Eddie’s lap playing drums at Glide Memorial Church. As his compositional and band leadership skills developed while receiving a B.F.A degree at the Mannes Jazz and Contemporary Music Program at the New School University in New York, Jaz began looking to Max Roach and Art Blakey for inspiration and as role models. He is currently getting his MBA in New Orleans, where he is also absorbing and learning about the roots of Jazz, and especially the evolution of drumming in Jazz.