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Nashville Scene High Notes

Trumpeter offers compelling mix of jazz and gospel

By Ron Wynn

MAY 24, 1999:  Nashville trumpeter Rod McGaha is emerging as a significant new figure on the jazz scene. And in a town dominated by country session musicians, his impressive résumé is something to boast about. Most notably, he's earned widespread praise for his contributions to various groups led by legendary drummer Max Roach. His sparkling solos and often flashy accompaniment will be featured extensively on Roach's upcoming Blue Note release, slated to come out in September.

McGaha's skills are also showcased on his new release Preacherman, his first for the Music City-based Compass label. The CD not only demonstrates his mastery of the horn, but reaffirms his diverse influences and background. Selections range from the standout original "Splip, Bap, Boom," a tribute to trumpet great Clark Terry, to fine adaptations of traditional show tunes and bop standards like Rodgers and Hart's "Lover" and the Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie anthem "Anthropology."

"I'm trying to get a balance between the old Ramsey Lewis trio approach and the traditional, old-school jazz sound," McGaha says, explaining the disc's scope. "I wanted to do some things where I went back and used the plunger, showing how you can experiment with the horn's range and sound. Then there are other songs that reflect the things I used to play."

The 37-year-old stylist, who moved to Nashville from Chicago about eight years ago, freely admits that jazz wasn't his first love. A child musician who began playing trumpet full-time at age 9, McGaha got his professional start on the R&B and gospel circuit. "I played with almost anyone you could name in Chicago: Gene Chandler, Arthur Scales, whoever was out there and needed a trumpet player. I still love gospel music and enjoy R&B."

But McGaha's musical direction changed in 1989, when he met Clark Terry at a jazz festival. "He was leading a big band and invited me to join it. His attitude about playing, his abilities, the things he told me about jazz, got me interested in the music. He's still my biggest influence, and no one has had more impact on how I approach playing."

McGaha hasn't deserted his gospel roots, however. In fact, gospel music was the connection that brought him to Nashville. He was touring with the a cappella ensemble Take 6, serving as an opening act, when his tourmates encouraged him to consider relocating here. McGaha eventually landed a deal with Warner Bros.--which was how Roach ended up hearing McGaha's music and asking the trumpeter to join his band.

Roach, one of bop's founding fathers, has worked with numerous immortals--Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Charles Mingus, to name a few. He has a reputation as a taskmaster who doesn't tolerate sloppiness or lack of creativity from his band members. But McGaha has nothing but praise for Roach and says he's been exceptionally supportive.

"He tells me every night after the gig to keep playing things my own way, and not to listen to what anyone else might say. He says don't try and sound like anyone else; be yourself. I'll come off the set with my head down because I'm playing in a group with [trumpeter] Eddie [Henderson, among jazz's most dazzling lead players], and he's all over the horn. But Max keeps my spirits high."

Though McGaha's shimmering lines and frequently stunning melodic interpretations form the highlights of Preacherman, he's not the only impressive player on the disc. Bassist Roger Spencer and pianist Lori Meechem, the husband-and-wife duo who operate Nashville's first full-time jazz institute, acquit themselves well on renditions of "When I Fall in Love," "In a Sentimental Mood," and Bobby Timmons' "This Here." Organist Marc Harris provides crisp support and counterpoint on such gospel selections as "Is Your All on the Altar"; and though drummer Chris Brown doesn't get much time in the spotlight, his accents guide the band well on "This Here" and "Cookout."

The set's lone weak spot is a cover of The Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love." For whatever reason, Beatles cuts, while engaging and delightful in rock or soul settings, don't work well for jazz; countless performers, from Frank Sinatra to Joe Williams to Count Basie, have fared poorly when adapting Lennon/McCartney material. While there's nothing instrumentally subpar about McGaha's attempt, the mood and intensity lag in comparison to the disc's other songs.

McGaha's spiritual numbers, especially "Is Your All on the Altar," may surprise those who find religious songs and jazz incompatible. He plays selections such as "Preacherman" and "Joy Unspeakable" with the same flair and drive he brings to "Anthropology" and "Cookout," despite differences in harmonic structure. "I see so many similarities between jazz and gospel, and don't really understand people who think there's so much difference between them," he says.

The date was coproduced by Delfeayo Marsalis and hopefully will bring McGaha more critical praise and exposure. Though not the exclusively hard bop or mainstream portrait some jazz purists might look for, Preacherman offers solid evidence that Rod McGaha is an artist to watch in both jazz and gospel circles.

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