The release of Influence, a memorable jazz sextet date, introduces the talented young altoist Gary Denbow II. His high quality originals, the inventive and highly musical playing, and the forward-looking post bop music carve out a place in the modern mainstream of jazz for the saxophonist-composer. "Most of the playing was done within five hours," remembers Gary. "None of the tunes went over two takes and we sometimes used the first version. It was a very good night in the studio." Gary Denbow II was born in Springfield, Missouri, spent four years in the Philippines as a youth, and grew up in Columbia, Missouri. "The earliest music that I heard was gospel since my Dad is a preacher. I started on piano when I was eight and started taking saxophone lessons when I was ten, playing in a school summer program. Growing up, I listened to jazz, classical, rock and gospel. I was able to switch easily between alternative music and Louis Armstrong. It was an eclectic time." While in high school, Gary's saxophone playing won quite a few awards including him being the only sax player to win as Best Soloist at a marching band competition in the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis. He first played jazz in public outside of a school setting when he was 16, becoming a professional after high school. Gary moved to Minneapolis where he earned a music degree at North Central University. During that period at school, he toured the Midwest with their jazz band, went to Israel with the school's choir, and became one of the founding members of a big band started by Kevin Mills called KCGO (Kev's Cool Gospel Orchestra) which played jazz arrangements of gospel tunes and hymns. While he played with that orchestra for ten years and also gigged with the gospel-swing group Jason and the G-Men and local bluesman Cornbread Harris, Gary worked fulltime in the corporate world. After a few years, Gary was at a crossroads in his professional life. "I was at a place where I had the opportunity to change careers. I decided that I would be much happier playing music the rest of my life. My wife and I moved to Kansas City so I could go to the conservatory and study with Bobby Watson. I was 31 at the time and it was a pretty big move." At the University of Missouri - Kansas City Conservatory Of Music And Dance, Gary had the opportunity to learn a great deal from Bobby Watson, a brilliant altoist who became famous early on for his playing with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers before having his own impressive solo career. While a member of Watson's school band, the Concert Jazz Ensemble, Gary played at the Montreux and North Sea Jazz Festivals and had opportunities to perform with several notable guests including Randy Brecker, Robin Eubanks and Ernie Andrews. While Gary learned a lot from Bobby Watson in the classroom, many of the most important lessons took place on the bandstand. "The biggest thing that I learned was to allow myself and my mind to stay open to the flow of ideas as they come from me. When I have an idea that I really like, I should feel free to put the brakes on and really explore that idea while not being afraid to play slow. It is not necessary to always burn." After a few years at the conservatory, Gary knew that it was time for him to lead his debut CD. He had recorded twice with KCGO, once with Jason & the G-Men, and also with a gospel singer, but now it was time for him to document his own music. For Influence, he gathered together some of the top local musicians. "I play with trumpeter Clint Ashlock as often as I can. He is one of my favorite soloists and makes me think of Freddie Hubbard. I play with pianist Will Crain and drummer Ryan Lee quite a bit on quartet gigs in Kansas City and I did play often with bassist Mike Moellman before he moved to New York. Guitarist Nick Grinlinton has a lot of potential and great ideas. I feel very comfortable playing with each of these very talented musicians." Influence consists of seven originals by Gary, some of which date back to 1994. The opening "Get A Hold Of My Tongue" is a medium-tempo hard bop blues-based tune that in it's opening ensembles is reminiscent of the Jazz Messengers and Horace Silver. The two horns both take fluent solos that show off their beautiful tones. On some of the other songs, the blend between the horns hints more at the Eric Dolphy-Freddie Hubbard recordings of 1960 although these musicians make no attempt to merely copy the past. "Influence" is notable for lyrical and laidback solos along with some heated interplay over the closing funky vamp. "Lopsy Daisies" has a particularly joyful melody, attractive chord changes (with a tricky bridge), and a playful boppish solo from Gary. "Living In Tense" goes in unpredictable places, utilizing a bass pattern that accompanies fairly free improvisations by Clint Ashlock, Gary and Will Crain. "For Those Who Die Young" was written in 1996 after three sisters died in a car accident while on the way to their brother's wedding rehearsal. "That touched me, so I wrote this dirge in memory of them and of people who pass before their time." This piece includes some mournful bass playing by Mike Moellman, heartfelt trumpet, and one of Gary's most adventurous alto solos. "When I Grow Up" is a real change of pace, featuring Gary 's appealing singing voice on some philosophical lyrics. Influence concludes with the soulful "Ride That River" which gives all of the musicians an opportunity to stretch out on some straightahead post bop music that hints at Cannonball Adderley's band. Gary Denbow II has been keeping quite busy. He is finishing up the last few requirements for two Masters degrees; one in classical saxophone performance and the other a Masters of Arts in Music. He plays regularly at a megachurch for 3-4,000 people a week. With his quartet he performs in a variety of settings. Gary loves teaching and has many saxophone and clarinet students at the Northland Cathedral School Of Music. He teaches sound engineers at BRC Audio Productions how to read music and a bit about theory. "I want to thank Bill Crain at BRC Audio Productions who has done a lot of work for me that he didn't have to do." In addition, Gary is a staff musician at Lenexa Christian Center where he is in a house band mostly comprised of top-notch gospel musicians such as Denny Autrey and Landy Ewing. Gary Denbow II looks forward to writing more music, making additional recordings, playing at clubs, and touring. "I have a lot of ambitions beyond what I have been doing. I want more people to hear my songs and see me play. I love to touch people with my music." The future looks bright for this talented musician who has taken a major step forward with the release of Influence. Scott Yanow.
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