"You take each solo like it was the last one you were going to play in your life."

- Clarinetist Pee Wee Russell (1906 - 69)

"This is more about music for the musician."

- Bassist Scott Giambusso

James Craig ("Craig" to his friends) Bazen wrapped his fingers around his saxophone, and it looked as if he were strangling it.

But it was just killer concentration.

Out of the instrument came a flood of notes.  His sound blending into the colorful, sinewy Count Basie chord blocks swelling from three other saxes.

Wearing a sweat shirt and jeans, a dark English cap atop his stylishly long hair, Bazen sat in his chair, rocking back and forth.  Sometimes he half stood, as if he needed the height to push out a note.  But then the music tumbled down the phantom dale anyway.

Behind Bazen were four trombonists and three trumpeters zapping out sporadic notes like a prizefighter lunging an arm into a punching bag.

The music overwhelmed the small room where it was played.  As it was, the rhythm section was set up perpendicular to the rest of the band.

When Bazen, who is also the bandleader, wanted the tune to end, he got up from his chair.  He turned to face the ensemble and removed the instrument from his mouth.   He balanced on one leg, and with his body stretched forward, he yanked his hand from front to rear as if shifting an invisible lever.

The band slammed to a finish, all in synch, topped of with the drummer's ching, the musical equivalent of the cherry capping a sundae.

Bazen and his eponymous band play with this clear vigor - even on the Stan Kenton ballads - for two-and-a-half hours every Wednesday night at Paisano's Bar & Grill in Rockville.

"This is more about music for the musician," said bassist Scott Giambusso, 45, of Wheaton.

That is, these musicians are universally tired of playing the "schmaltzy wedding stuff" that pays the bills.  By informal calculation, this gang has played "In The Mood" 96,170 times and appreciates the weekly respite.

An so it is that many of the players come from as far as Leesburg, VA., and Baltimore to play this gig, to challenge their chops and sight reading skills.  Often, a musician will test a chart he wrote by offering it up for a run-through.

"One of the things we do is get into trouble by playing charts we've never done before, "Bazen announced to the audience last Wednesday via a microphone that needlessly amplified the saxes in the small setting.

Despite Bazen's plea of lowered expectations, the band sailed triumphantly through trombonist Jerry O"Sullivan's "Nothin' Doin'," which spotlighted O'Sullivan as he maneuvered through Latin and medium swing tempos.

For the small crowd that forms - there's no crew of regulars - the evening show is a rare opportunity to see musicians smiling during the musical interludes.  Not a plastic, Cab Calloway performer's grin either.

There seems to be on each musician's face a beaming display of thanks to the gods of big-band orchestras.  They are thankful because they know that as many times as they'll be required to play "In The Mood" at bar mitzvahs and business functions that at least they can rely on this venue for a regular charge.

Split personality

Ironically, this same group interprets the tunes popularized [by] Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey.

The Wednesday band, which started its weekly gig two years ago at Paisano's, is called The James Bazen Big Band.  Otherwise, the ensemble goes by the Music Unlimited Big Band and plays those big-band standards at weddings and other comparably big money-making occasions.

But with few exceptions, the instrumentalists are identical.

Bazen, 39, of Gaithersburg named the more commercial group after his own booking agency, Music Unlimited, which he started 13 years ago.

Besides a variety band called Cityscape, Bazen also runs a jazz quintet called The James Bazen Project.  The quintet, which plays many of Bazen's own compositions, made a 1992 self-produced recording called "Stranger Things."   It sold 2000 copies and received local air play on soft-jazz stations.

To call the recording easy listening, however, is a mistake.  Bazen's track "Monks Of The Castle," so named because it's based on a Gregorian chant, switches between a funky beat with a flute taking the melody to a modern jazz sound with soprano sax in the lead.

"The record label couldn't pigeonhole it," Bazen said about why he self-produced the quintet recording.

Even the few softer tunes have an endearing melody and personality that break with the traditional definition of soft jazz.  And at times, the arrangements can be as playful as those of the Raymond Scott Quintet, a 1930s experimental jazz ensemble.

Bazen's second release, which came five years later on Seaside Recordings, a small jazz label near Boston, features the full big band interpreting standards like "Summertime," as well as his own groovy piece "Chillin'."

Disdaining brute classifications

Bazen said he disdains such brute classifications in his music.

He grew up in Florida, the son of a one-time bluegrass musician.  Although aware of the modern rock music scene, he said he turned to jazz in high school "because it separated [him] from the crowd.  I always prided myself in not conforming."

He earned a scholarship to Greensboro College in North Carolina, where he graduated in 1981 with a bachelor of music degree in classical saxophone.

After college, he spent a year in New Orleans.  In the Big Easy, he often played sax from 2 - 6 a.m. in Dixieland, blues and rock bands.  Then Bazen would drink heavily afterwards, along with everyone else.

"I figured if I'd stayed there, my brain would have fallen out," he said, sipping bottled water while sitting in a conference room at Music Unlimited.

Like the northward direction of jazz during the second decade of this century, Bazen went to Chicago.  He played in society bands, got married and after a few years, he moved to the Washington, D.C., area with his wife.

Bazen built up the booking business, but playing and writing his own music is what he lives for.  Still, the low demand for progressive jazz disappoints him.

In that way, the so-called swing music revival has not particularly helped rise the tide for all big bands, Bazen and other musicians said.

What goes by swing nowadays, while fun for dancers, is "kind of limiting," O'Sullivan said, adding the tunes often are repetitious.

But the Wednesday night gigs at Paisano's satisfy the players.

The manager at Paisano's "has no expectations, and the crowd has no expectations, and anything can happen," Bazen said.  "And that's what jazz is all about."

The James Bazen Big Band plays at 8 p.m. every Wednesday from October through March at Paisano's Bar & Grill, 316 North Washington St., Rockville.  No cover charge or drink minimum.  Call 301-424-0444.top.gif (458 bytes)