Having made a name for himself as a top session man and performer through out the greater Boston Jazz scene, saxophone player Paul Combs is ready to reach for a higher plateau. The 52 year old Cambridge musician has begun promoting his second CD, THE THINGS YOU ALL ARE with a string of club dates the will take him from Nashua and Portsmouth, New Hampshire to Boston and Providence.
Combs released his first CD, HAWK'S DELIGHT only two years ago and he's planning to release two more in the year ahead. His band, the Paul Combs Quartet, features jay Ford on Guitar, Stanley C. Swann III on drums and Paul Ebersole on bass.
Combs has been playing with these musicians for a number of years and that camaraderie lends itself well to the strong ensemble work found on the new recording. Through out the CD, Combs sometimes subtle, sometimes assertive flute and saxophones wind mellifluously around Ebersole's palpable beat and Swann's adeptly accented drum rolls while Ford's up tempo, upbeat guitar notes add a tender counterpoint.
"Making music has a lot to do with personal relationships," he explained. "You learn to breathe together after a while. It gives the music a certain depth by spending the time together. I'm very fortunate to have continuity with these guys."
It's hard to choose a few highlights from THE THINGS YOU ALL ARE because each player's musical experience combines to create shining musical moments through out a landscape of exuberant sound. The balladry of "Laura" by Raksin and Mercer gives way to the rhythmical finesse of Montgomery's "Road Song." A couple of Combs' original numbers, "One For Ken" and "I got My Job Through BOP," feature the quartet playing jazz themes around the 12-bar blues structure.
Combs names his musical influence as Sonny Rollins, James Moody, Booker Ervine, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Music writers describe Combs' sound as "modern mainstream jazz." But the sax man has a slightly different view of what he plays.
"Terminology is always a very difficult problem," he said. "I'm playing in a mode of playing that took shape in the late 50's and early 60's. That's when I became deeply involved with this music. I play mostly jazz because that's what works for me. I also like to play music from the American Songbook, songs from the 1020's to the 1950's. I also like to tackle things that are challenging."
Combs and his band even included "Over The Rainbow" on HAWK'S DELIGHT. Combs explained why his band used this number from the "Wizard Of Oz" musical score. "It's and American Songbook tune," he said, "and we had a chance to take it somewhere melodically."
"I'm not on a crusade of any kind," he said. "I don't have a mentality that I only have to play a certain way." Combs pointed to the recent emergence of nouveau swing bands whose sounds are based on music from the 1940's and 1950's. Combs said the players in new bands are consciously revisiting musical styles from the past, whereas he's been playing his music for a long time.
Combs' personal and professional history testify to his ability to transcend genres and accomplish significant musical goals outside his work in the jazz arena. He has been playing professionally for 35 years and also holds an undergraduate degree in composition from a classical conservatory, the Philadelphia Musical Academy.
His academic background came in handy on a handful of occasions when he was hired to compose film scores for a variety of different film makers, including a score for Len and Georgia Morris' 1976 picture "David Swann," and adaptation of a Nathaniel Hwathorne story.
"I try to create a score to support the ambiance of the film," he said. " I came up with a mock-Celtic sound for the Hawthorne film with unusual instruments for Celtic music: alto flute and bowed double-bass. It was really out in left field."
Combs described scoring for films as a "chameleon kind of job." He doesn't think about the kind of music he likes personally when composing a score. He creates what each filmaker needs for each scene.
Paul Combs also became a part of the folk music movement of the late 1960's and early 1970"s when he engaged in ancestral research and found his roots in an area considered a well-spring of folk. His father, a college English professor, was originally form East Kentucky but never thought of himself as an Appalachian. This exploration led Combs to establish a musical link to his background and switched to acoustic and electric guitar and bass.
"When you're growing up," he offered, " you want to find out where you came from to understand yourself better."
Combs performed live and in the studio with many known folk artists, Paul Geremia, Mary McCaslin, U. Utah Phillips, Jim Ringer, Paul Seibel and Rosalie Sorrels. He has also performed and recorded with rockabilly artist Sleepy LaBeef. The sax man's work con be heard on laBeef's 1982 album ELECTRICITY. Playing with the rockabilly star in a live setting is quite memorable for Combs.
"Sleepy was a lot of fun," he said. "He had big ears and he figured out how to play stuff without notes. And he was challenging to play with. He doesn't call out tunes or titles. He just started playing them, and I had to go right along with him. He always played with a lot of energy. He rocked the house."
Combs also met and performed with blues legends Johnny Shines and Robert Jr. Lockwood in the early seventies at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and he accompanied Shines on the folk circuit. This relationship lead to Combs playing sax on two tracks on Shines' and Lockwood's 1981 album MISTER BLUES IS HERE TO STAY.
The jazz man felt very comfortable with the blues format and he sees the blues as a musical foundation of jazz. "You can't play jazz if you can't play blues," he explained. "Jazz is based on the blues. The marketing aspect may try to put music into neat little categories, but blues inflections and are very present in jazz."
But Combs' main love has been jazz for many years and he is very satisfied with the resurgent interest, especially among young listeners who have been turning up at clubs which cater to his new audience.
"Because they didn't have it in the home when they were growing up," he said, "they listen to it with a sense of freshness. Their parents had rock, pop and Top 40 stuff playing in the house. Jazz is also energetic and not terribly loud. Tit becomes a soundtrack for their social events."
Performing in jazz clubs is a way of life for Combs. In fact, he used to host the Singers Jam Sunday every week at Yen's Wok in Framingham before that establishment was closed down last year. The club's forum provided a chance for singers of varying levels of experience to sing with a band. According to Combs, many people cut their professional teeth at Yen's Wok. But it was really part of Combs' mission to help expose all Yen's Wok patrons and participants to good music.
"All music has a spiritual dimension," he said. "That dimension has more input in what I do than anything else. Any time I can connect with people through music, it's a good thing."
Combs is also a private instructor at the Minor Chord Teaching Studio in Acton, and he's been a teacher in the Revere Public School system for six years. He's taught in numerous other school systems since 1980. He said private teaching is less stressful than teaching in the schools but that being a public school teacher is very rewarding because he can reach a lot of young people.
The sax man also provides a seminar for beginning and intermediate players called the Improviser's Workshop. Students spend an afternoon learning how to use the common jazz scales to feel phrase and form in improvising. Combs presented his Improviser's Workshop in July at the Mill Pond Center in Durham, New Hampshire under the auspices of the Seacoast Jazz Society.
Originally form Philadelphia, Combs graduated from Central High School where he studied with Buddy Savitt. As a Teenager, he lived around the corner from two jazz clubs, Peps Show Bar and The Showboat, clubs that featured performances of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
He Graduated from the Philadelphia Musical Academy in 1968 where he studied with Joseph Castaldo and Andrew Rudin. His time at the Academy also found him helping Robert Moog install the school's first electronic music equipment. "The equipment at the time was modules built into instruments to modify their tones," he added.
But Combs finds the Boston jazz scene more exciting than the one he left behind. When he left Philadelphia in 1972, the jazz scene was sporadic and underground.
"Philadelphia didn't have the same kind of energy," he relates. In 1977, Combs was invited to play in a Jazz Coalition event in a marathon concert at a Back Bay church. Episcopalian minister Mark Harvey was a trumpet player and composer and jazz aficionado, and he held the concert as a benefit for drummer Ed Blackwell. Blackwell had kidney problems and needed funds for expensive dialysis treatment. A wide variety of bands, from straight forward jazz players toe the progressive bands, were invited, the sax man recalled.
"All kinds of music got tackled, " Combs declared. Combs' large band was led by soprano sax player Stan Strickland who wailed up in the balcony as over 25 sax players marched into the altar area like a choir with their horns blaring out a dense, dramatic texture of sound. Then all the horn players began playing a melody written by Baird Hersey for the occasion.
Combs also performed at the Cambridge Public Library during their Sounds Of Jazz series in 1991. The series was organized by the late Ken Williams who worked at the library and obtained the library's auditorium for the concerts. One concert featured a theme of Cambridge jazz musicians for which Williams was able to get grant money to pay the musicians.
"It was a nice concert," Combs said. "We have a lot of composers who work in Cambridge, and others like Johnny Hodges who was Duke Ellington's lead alto sax player, and people never knew we had them."
Combs and his band will be performing several club dates through out New England this fall and winter.
-Bill Copeland, Metronome Magazine, October 1998.