Phil Ranelin jazz quintet graces SMC's Edye Second Space

Standing between his trombone, a grand piano, a flute, a tenor saxophone, and a drumset, Phil Ranelin, 71, tries his best to answer the hasty questions of students that came to see him perform.

            "What are the names of your songs?" "What musicians influenced you the most?" "When did you begin playing jazz?" Ranelin, the legendary slide trombonist from Indianapolis, Ind., offers (at best) perfunctory answers.

            Frankly, it seems he doesn't want to be rude to a small group of young squares; after all, if they don't know who Duke and Bird were, how on Earth could they know or appreciate Phil Ranelin? At best, he might be some kind of obscure musical dinosaur, coming out of the woodwork to play a couple of sets at Santa Monica College.

            But musical dinosaur or not, on Friday, April 29, The Phil Ranelin Quintet performed at the cozy Edye Second Space theater, to a mostly dull crowd of Music 33 and 37 students, as well as a small group of devoted fans.

            Performing with Ranelin's Quintet were Trevor Ware on the bass fiddle, Don Littleton on drums, Dr. Louis Van Taylor on the reeds, and Mahesh Balasooriya on piano. Throughout the performance, each of these considerably talented musicians seamlessly blended the sounds of Afro-Cuban rhythms, bebop, Motown, and Caribbean music under the umbrella of "spiritual jazz."

             "This music has my personality on it," said Ranelin. But giving credit to those who came before him, the musical fountains from which he draws inspiration from are the avant-garde pioneers Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, and especially John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy.

            The set began with a piece entitled "Perseverance," one of Ranelin's spiritual hymns. Employing African percussive sounds and a formidable presence from the rhythm section, Taylor and Ranelin explored the boundaries of their instruments (tenor sax and trombone) with an intentional, off-time style. Following "Perseverance" was "Close Encounters of The Best Kind," an Afro-Cuban tune that gained a handsome share of radio plays in 1997. With Taylor switching to the flute, the piece was truly sublime, and Balasooriya, Ware, and Littleton shined throughout.

            The Quintet closed the set with "Horace's Scope," and a showstopper called "Jamaican Sunrise," leading the audience through a world of sounds. Throughout the performance, Ranelin's trombone playing was exceptional, which is to be expected of a musician of his stature in the worldwide jazz community. As a performer, he retained a certain floral mystique, where at one moment he would wilt and seem wrapped in tranquility, and at another moment blossom without warning, dancing vigorously to the rhythm.

            Kimati Ramsey, 19, a Music 33 student present at the show, remarked at how gratifying it was to appreciate jazz from a technical aspect. "It was a great performance," he said. "The musical knowledge these men have, and the technical skill of their improvisations, was wonderful."

            "It was fabulous!" said Marsha Vargas, 51, also a Music 33 student. "I loved the last song, and its Carribean touch. The musicians were so professional; I wanted to get up and dance!" 

             "Jazz, to me, is part of my culture," said Ranelin. "Tootie Heath once told me that we don't just play jazz—we are jazz. Jazz was developed out of oppression, and has since spread all over the world. What came out of the black experience has transcended all boundaries.

            "It's America's classical music."