Strong musical personalities somehow mesh when the Jazzmaniacs get together. 

Loose-Limbed Intensity

After almost a decade of regular gigs at Bogart's Back Room, the Jazzmaniacs were something of a Richmond tradition. Twice a month, the quartet reinvented originals and idiosyncratic standards, playing with a loose-limbed intensity unusual in a local band. Their interplay got national exposure in the well-received live CD "One Man's Blues," which was recorded live at Bogart's in 1999.

The magic ended last summer when baritone sax player/leader Glenn Wilson moved to central Illinois. (His wife, Janet, cofounder of the Firehouse Theatre project and a longtime instructor in the VCU drama department, landed a tenure-track position at Illinois State.) The Jazzmaniacs may have been a local institution, but Wilson was the only Richmond-based player. The rest of the band came in from a 100-plus-mile radius — pianist Steve Kessler from Baltimore, drummer Tony Martucci from Washington and bassist Jimmy Masters from Tidewater — to play together.

On Dec. 28 and 29, they all make the long drive again for the first reunion of the band in the Back Room.

What makes the band unique is the interplay of strong musical personalities. "We're all leaders in our own groups," says Wilson. "As a result, we all lead each other."

Wilson's baritone sax is the heart of the Jazzmaniac's signature sound. With a lower range than the commoner tenor or alto sax, Wilson's blowing ranges from bighearted depths to controlled upper-register explorations. His solos are linear constructions, moving through peaks and releases with the layered logic of a Bach melody.

Steve Kessler (who's own trio is booked to play at Bogart's the first weekend of every month in 2002) spins out fluid keyboard architectures and moves on before they solidify. "Once the intent is established, I don't need to hear the whole thing," Kessler says. "It becomes manipulative and untrue to the music."

With Martucci on the drums, there is little danger of the music becoming predictable. "Sometimes Tony changes direction while I am in middle of a solo," says Kessler. "If I don't respond immediately it's because I'm in denial until I realize I have to make music out of it. Frequently, I like what he did even better."

"Tony is fantastic," says Wilson. "So many drummers don't have the nerve to step on a limb, but he knows he can give up the time and we'll keep it for him. That's the beauty of having played with the same people for a long time. We can take chances and still all end up at the same spot."

Bassist Masters is the band's center of gravity. The first choice for the band when it formed, he was too busy with his own projects to become a regular member for the first few years. "We never really jelled until he got there," Wilson says. "We're not an easy band to play with, you have to be competent and confident in your own ability." Masters is a model of relaxed virtuosity; just watching him listen is an education in the music.

And he's often easier to watch than to hear; playing bass is a thankless job in the social cacophony of the Back Room. "We try to get Jimmy's solos in early, before it gets too rowdy," Wilson says.

For those who are paying attention, the Jazzmaniacs' blend of individual expression and elastic interplay is jazz at a very high level. "The reason that we're still doing this is that we couldn't play this way with other people," says Kessler. "We have a mutual musical direction that doesn't reflect any one player's taste but instead a shared group sound. It's synergistic. And there's a sense that anything can happen at any moment."

The opportunity to catch the Jazzmaniacs in their natural habitat promises to be one of the musical treats of the holiday season.

The Jazzmaniacs will perform in Bogart's Back Room, 203 N. Lombardy St., Dec. 28 and 29 at 9:30 p.m. $5 cover. 353-9280

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