By Jenny Neyman
There’s something to be said for living in the moment, especially when that moment involves a jazz musician plunging into an intricate improvisation. At the same time, jazz is progressive, and you’ve got to know from where you’re coming to know where you’re going.
Rick Zelinsky, jazz saxophonist, is straddling the crossroads between then and now. He explores the paths traveled by jazz greats of the past, and uses it to chart his own compositions in the future.
Zelinsky is at a crossroads in his musical career, as well. He’s a performer in Anchorage and beyond, teaches at the University of Alaska and in the Anchorage School District, and has a family with three kids growing their musical interests — all of which keeps him rooted in Anchorage.
Pulling him away is his educational path. He’s got a bachelor’s degree in music performance from Cleveland State University, a master’s in saxophone performance from the University of Akron, Ohio, and is accepted into a doctorate program for saxophone at the University of Indiana. Until he can drag himself away from Alaska and the music scene here long enough to finish his doctorate, Zelinsky is treading a middle road that keeps his head and fingers in academia.
That’s how his Tribute to the Jazz Masters series got started in fall 2009.
Every other month he picks a jazz great and chooses 16 to 18 of his or her compositions to study and ultimately perform, often with other local musicians.
“It’s a way for me to really challenge myself, because you could take a composer and really study those compositions for a year or more. Looking at a new master every two months, it really is a huge challenge to learn all that music and study and listen and pull it off. It’s just a way for me to keep pushing myself,” Zelinsky said.
Some of the masters he’s featured so far are Julian “Cannonball” and Nat Adderley, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
“It’s fun to play the greatest hits. Jazz isn’t the most popular music right now in America. There may be, to our culture, only a few really popular things that most people recognize,” Zelinsky said.
In selecting compositions to study and perform, Zelinsky goes for a mix of well-known and obscure. That not only is a benefit for the performers — to perform the masterworks as well as explore something new — but it offers an accessible path to jazz for audiences that may not be familiar with anything beyond the most-popular works.
“We’re playing music that no one’s playing. In picking that many compositions, we’re playing a lot of stuff that no one’s heard before, that even the musicians haven’t heard before, so it’s a lot of fun. It gives the audience some surprises,” he said.
He’s had a good response from listeners as well as fellow musicians, drawing participation from Pat Owens, Melissa Bledsoe Fischer, Dan McElrath, John Nyman, Robert Arms, Errol Bressler, Dirk Westfall, Cameron Carland, Monica Lettner and Kerry Maule.
“I’ve received a lot of feedback, not only from the audience that they’ve really enjoyed it, but even musicians coming in and listening, that I’m presenting this music and keeping it alive,” he said.
Keeping already created compositions alive is a laudable goal, but Zelinsky wants to give life to his own compositions, as well. He’s hoping to have his new CD ready to distribute in time for his April 15 concert in Soldotna.
“That’s an important part of being a jazz musician is to compose, not just to play other people’s music,” Zelinsky said. “Jazz is very progressive. You want to continue to build on the people that have come before, to keep studying the great musicians that came before, and then sort of incorporate that into writing new compositions.”
Zelinsky plans to perform some of his own compositions as well as highlights from his master’s series in his Soldotna performance. He will perform at 3 p.m. April 15 at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus.
Zelinsky will continues his jazz master’s series throughout the winter at the Tap Root Café on Spenard Road in Anchorage. Thelonious Monk was the subject Nov. 17, Jan. 26 was trumpet giants Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard, March 22 was the work of jazz-soul brothers Julian “Cannonball” and Nat Adderley, and May 24 will be Horace Silver.
Rick Zelinsky and ensemble performs at 3 p.m. Sunday at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus.
For more information on Zelinsky, visit http://www.icygrooves.com/Icy_Grooves/Bio.html.