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Acclaimed Portland bassist kicks off downtown's newest jazz showcase

Al Singer likes to poke fun at his own habit of running at the mouth.

"Ask me what time it is, and I'll tell you how to make a watch," jokes the 73-year-old Singer, a lifelong jazz adherent who moved from Michigan to the Valley 11 years ago.

But if Singer is occasionally prone to verbosity, it's simply a component of his enthusiasm for the music, an enthusiasm that has spurred him in recent years to advance the cause of local jazz on the Valley club scene.

David Friesen: A Portland bass master who'll play a series of local gigs this weekend at various venues.
David Friesen: A Portland bass master who'll play a series of local gigs this weekend at various venues.

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Scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. Thursday, February 7, at Modified Arts; 6 p.m. Saturday, February 9, at the Rhythm Room; and 8 p.m. Sunday, February 10, at the Famous Door in Scottsdale

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Even as a teenager in Bay City, Michigan, Singer "presented" (he dislikes words like "promoted" and "booked," because they imply a labor of lucre, rather than one of love) jazz shows, and after enrolling at Michigan State University, he founded that school's jazz club.

Singer has spent most of his adult life running a shoe business, but he's always kept his hand in the world of jazz, at one point even managing a group and touring the country with it.

Last February, he co-produced a tribute show for Ike Cole, which resulted in an invitation from the Scottsdale club the Famous Door to have Singer take over Sunday nights.

Now, Singer is extending his impact by inaugurating a monthly jazz series at the downtown space Modified Arts, where he'll present the more experimental, unconventional wing of modern jazz. It's all part of his plan to cross-pollinate a musical community that he finds overly fragmented.

"Unfortunately, the jazz market in Phoenix is highly decimated and highly fractionalized by geography. I think in time that will probably diminish, with the highways. But right now, the people who go to Inspirations don't know the Rhythm Room exists, and vice versa. The crossover amounts to maybe 10 or 12 people."

One of the first salvos in Singer's crusade to expand that crossover comes this week with a series of local performances by Portland jazz veterans David Friesen and John Gross. Over four nights, Friesen and Gross will play everywhere from Modified Arts to the Rhythm Room to Inspirations Coffeehouse to the Famous Door. Rather than looking at such heavy market saturation as overkill, Singer sees this kind of stint as a fascinating lesson in how creative jazz players respond and adjust to different settings.

"I told [Arizona State jazz professor] Chuck Marohnic what an opportunity it would be for students to be able to hear the same group on successive nights, and hear how different they might play, depending on the venue. 'Cause that's how it works with jazz."

Marohnic is actually the real reason that Friesen will be in town this week. The two men are longtime friends, and once a year, Friesen -- universally acknowledged as one of the greatest double-bass players in the world -- comes to ASU to perform clinics for the university's jazz students. Over the years, Friesen got to know a saxophone-playing student named Andrew Gross (no relation to John Gross).

"I was a student there for a while, and Dave and I started playing together and then we started doing gigs," Andrew Gross says. "As he came annually, we just made it a date that we would play once a year."

Anticipating this year's clinic, Friesen asked Gross to set up some other possible Valley dates for his visit. In January, Gross moved from Phoenix to New York, but before doing so, he handed over the Friesen gig assignment to Singer, who'd been working with Gross' band at the Famous Door.

Over the years, the 59-year-old Friesen has quietly established himself as one of the defining players on his instrument. A native of Tacoma, Washington, he was stationed with the U.S. Army in Paris at 19, frequently sitting in with established cats like Johnny Griffin and George Aranitas. After returning to the states, he hooked up with up-and-coming Seattle players like Larry Coryell and Randy Brecker. Once described by Leonard Feather in the Los Angeles Timesas "one of the most eminent exponents of the instrument," Friesen built his reputation backing big names like Clark Terry, and slowly moved to the fore -- receiving four five-star album reviews from Down Beat,scoring two Oscar-nominated animated shorts, and earning a Most Valuable Musician nod at the Monterey Jazz Festival. He's the rare bassist with a sound so rich and distinctive that he can play unaccompanied and make it work.

"He's played with all the legends, and that's something that a lot of people don't know," Gross says. "He worked as a sideman in Dexter Gordon's band and Stan Getz's band; he worked with Chick Corea on a record; and Joe Henderson. So he came up with all those guys, and now he's doing his own thing.

"He's a very spiritual person," Gross adds. "He's not blunt, but he rubs some people the wrong way, because their egos get involved, but his intentions are always good. He affects people like me in a very positive way, and he has some very interesting things to say about music. He's very much about giving up the self and listening for a need in the music and filling that. Creating music as a group, as opposed to being an individual who showcases himself."

Friesen will be accompanied by saxophonist John Gross, a jazz educator in Portland, who's juggled three bands of his own (Threeplay, Belma Bii, and Saxophobia) with sideman work for Friesen and others.

For Singer, the Friesen/Gross shows are just the beginning of some big plans. On February 25, he's putting on a smoke-free, all-star jam session at the Rhythm Room, as a tribute to the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts and records organized in the '40s in L.A. by Norman Granz. Granz, the founder of Verve Records, and one of jazz's greatest business champions, died last November. It's easy to see his work as a model for what Singer, an activist involved in furthering the prospects for women in jazz, and jazz on the radio, would hope to achieve.

"The Jazz at the Philharmonic shows were really important," Singer says. "He was so instrumental, not only in the jazz world, but also when it came to breaking down segregation. He absolutely refused to stay in segregated hotels. So he broke a lot of ice."

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