Master of Class

Saxophonist Eric Marienthal’s Blue Jay Jazz Festival debut is a chance to elevate and educate

For audiences attending the three-day 2019 Blue Jazz Festival, August 22-24, a highlight will be the Eric Marienthal Quartet, with keyboardist Mitchel Forman, bassist André Berry, and drummer Joel Taylor backing the Grammy Award-winning saxophonist. As jazz record producer, musician, and Lake Arrowhead resident George Whitty said, “I think this the deepest band we’re going to have had up here for the last 15 years.”

For the mountain communities’ young music students, however, it’s what happens Thursday, when Marienthal arrives on the afternoon of opening day to teach a free Master Class for Rim High School students and other young musicians on the school’s campus.

Marienthal is a top studio musician, a Grammy Award-winning recording artist with a dozen-plus solo recordings, a regular member of two Southern California two jazz powerhouses – Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band and the Tom Kubis Big Band – and, perhaps most notably, a founding member of Chick Corea’s jazz-fusion Elektric Band.

It’s his class work with students around the world, however, that defines the man as a class act.

“Through the Phat Band I’ve gotten the chance to do all kinds of high school and college master classes,” he said in April, a week before a three-and-a-half week Japan tour split evenly between concerts and clinics. “Through an interpreter I do a lot of stuff in classrooms and instruction with young students. It’s fun.”

“It’s hard to think of an artist more dedicated to his craft,” Goodwin said of Marienthal. “His playing reflects a balance between his emotional side and his intellectual side, a tricky line to walk. He is a versatile musician, comfortable in a wide variety of styles, with astonishing technical skills. But best of all, Eric is a kind and generous person, and that attribute, more than anything else, defines who he is as a musician.”

When he takes the stage at Arrowhead Lake Association’s Tavern Bay Beach Club, it will be his first local appearance since he was in a student.

“When I was in high school my mom lived in Blue Jay and had a small stake in The Trails Restaurant, on the opposite side of the street from Jensen’s Market. My little high school band used to go up there and play in the bar. We were all about 16,” he said, “so we weren’t supposed to be playing in the bar. But we did anyway.”

An educator’s education

Born in Sacramento in December 1957, Marienthal grew up in the Los Angeles area and while in high school would head to Disneyland to hear the Big Bands on Carnation Plaza.

“Every week during the summer there’d be Big Bands playing and you didn’t have to pay for admission then,” he recalled. “I got to hear Buddy Rich’s Band, Louis Belson’s Band, and Basie’s Band. Just getting to hear that music is such an important part of music education.”

He also attended educational events by touring bands who augmented high school festival appearances with clinics and band camps.
“I don’t know that I would have even decided to go into music professionally had it not been for those kinds of influences,” he said.

At Berklee College of Music he attained the school’s highest proficiency rating before heading back to Los Angeles to become a studio musician. He heard that famed New Orleans trumpeter Al Hirt was auditioning for a Big Band.

“On a lark I auditioned and got the gig,” he said. “So I moved to New Orleans. We played his club in the French Quarter, and at 20 or 21 I was in my first traveling band: Almost every weekend we traveled to New York, Chicago, Denver, or some other city. Buddy Rich’s Band, Maynard’s Band, and Woody’s Band and Toshiko’s Band were all active then. Ours was really special, though, because Al took particularly good care of his musicians. We all felt like we had the cool gig.”

The Corea connection

That band lasted about a year. Back in Los Angeles, while developing as a studio musician, he had a regular gig on Cahuenga with John Novello, a friend of Chick Corea.

“John kept threatening that one night Chick was going to come in and hear the band. One night, he did. It turned out he was there to hear me because he wanted to add a saxophone to the Elektric Band and John Patitucci had recommended he come hear me.”

The next morning Corea called and offered him the job, in time to record Light Years, the second record and first with a saxophone from the band: Corea, Marienthal, bassist Patitucci, guitarist Frank Gambale and drummer Dave Weckl.

“It was literally one of those jaw-dropping events,” he said. “At the time the Elektric Band was one of the real pinnacle groups in fusion-jazz music. My friends and I had just eaten that first record up for dinner. I had memorized every note. I never in a million years thought that I would actually be asked to be part of it but everybody, especially Chick, made me feel very much like I was the guy. We’ve been recording and touring ever since.”

The studio and beyond

The updraft from membership in Corea’s quintet raised Marienthal’s standing across the industry. The year Light Years was released Marienthal recorded his debut, Voices of the Heart, which included appearances by Gambale, Patitucci, and Corea. He was now a top studio player, called in for motion picture and television soundtracks as well as to record with Elton John, BB King, Barbara Streisand, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Dave Grusin, Lee Ritenour, George Duke, The Jeff Lorber Fusion, Lou Rawls, The Yellowjackets, and many more.

He has now recorded 14 solo CDs, with a 15th expected by year’s end. Nine of his songs have made it to the National Contemporary Jazz Radio Top 10 and three have made it to number 1. Still, the social aspect of the music business remains as strong a motivator as industry success.

“I have been lead alto with Gordon’s band since the beginning and that’s very, very special on a lot of levels,” Marienthal said.

“I’ve known Gordon since I was 18, and probably half the guys in the band have known each other and worked together that long.”

For more than two decades Marienthal has helped raise funds to provide scholarship support to allow brain-injured persons to attend a rehabilitation program.

“Eric and his wife Leeann have help make High Hopes possible for hundreds of deserving people,” said Mark J. Desmond, the Orange County program’s director. “Eric’s music is awesome and so is Eric.”

“He has always had a deep commitment to his music, which is reflected in every note he plays,” said Goodwin. “He is completely committed to whatever he is playing and this commitment reaches the audience in a discernible way.”

Whitty agreed, adding about the Festival, “It’s going to be a really amazing band. Everybody should see it.”

Photo: Eric Marienthal at the Java Jazz Festival, 2011 (Radek Rakowski)