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"Steppin' Back," New CD Due October 23, Introduces Bay Area Trumpeter/Composer Joel Behrman

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Joel Behrman When Joel Behrman relocated to the Bay Area in 2000, the trumpeter/composer was intent on renewing his commitment to jazz. He’d completed his music degree at the University of Miami and worked a series of non-jazz gigs, in clubs and on the road, and as he continued his years of dues-paying in California he realized that, in jazz, the fundamental things apply: swing, the blues, connecting with the audience.

On his superb new debut recording, Steppin’ Back, Behrman and his band express those essential jazz values in a program of elegant originals interspersed with compositions by Ellington, Armstrong, and Joe Henderson. His collaborators represent the top tier of local players: bassist Marcus Shelby, one of San Francisco’s most illustrious bandleaders and composers; in-demand pianist Matt Clark; drummer Howard Wiley (better known as a saxophonist); tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, a Berkeley High grad who lives in New York but maintains close ties to home; and veteran trombonist Danny Armstrong, a founding member of Lavay Smith’s Red Hot Skillet Lickers.

“I wanted it to be a Bay Area project exclusively,” says Behrman, a San Jose resident. “There is a lot of talent here that’s underexposed.”

The album’s centerpiece is the leader’s compelling three-movement “Justice Suite” (Sin / Righteous Indignation / Evolution), written for the sextet. While conceived as a response to the current political climate, the suite is also very much an interior drama, “related to a personal struggle of someone trying to change, working through the anger,” Behrman says. “That could be a metaphor for all kinds of things where it doesn’t feel like justice is around.”

closes with “something lighthearted”: “The Faithful Hussar,” which Behrman learned from Louis Armstrong’s Ambassador Satch. While listening to it recently with his wife, “we just started dancing to the song. Anything with that bounce needs to be heard.”

Joel Behrman, 37, grew up in a St. Louis suburb and, at age 9, started on his first instrument, trombone, a horn he still plays frequently today. He went on to earn his music degree at the University of Miami, studying with world-class improvisers like Ira Sullivan (another two-horn master) and playing countless salsa gigs on the local scene. He went on the road with KC and the Sunshine Band and eventually moved to the Bay Area, where several UM friends were already living.

Behrman started playing with the New Orleans–inspired Brass the Monkey Brass Band on trumpet and trombone. He played funk with Lenny Williams, the former lead vocalist with Tower of Power; East Bay grease with Lydia Pense and Cold Blood, another vintage soul/R&B combo; and New Jack Swing with Tony! Toni! Toné! — all gigs that required him to hone his trumpet chops and really develop his technique. But the most important gig was joining swing/blues vocalist Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers.

“That was a life-changing experience, getting introduced to genuine swing,” Behrman says. “There was a standard you had to live up to, being able to swing and play the blues. It really shaped certain opinions and philosophies in my mind.”

These days Behrman is touring internationally with percussion star Sheila E., and also performing widely with her father, the Latin jazz great Pete Escovedo. He still gets gigs as a trombonist, but the trumpet has increasingly become his primary creative vehicle, to the point where he didn’t think twice about playing the horn exclusively on Steppin’ Back.

Behrman’s immediate goal is to find opportunities to perform with his sextet. “I couldn’t have hoped for a better assembly of musicians,” says the trumpeter. “They really understand what I’m trying to accomplish on this project.”


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