Bruce Saunders is one of the premier guitarists in Austin. Yet he’s also one of the most invisible. Saunders doesn’t play that many local live shows as a bandleader, and he did not chart in this year’s “best guitarist” category of the Austin Music Awards.
Why is that? Well, Saunders plays jazz, hardly the headline genre in this city. He’s also really, really shy. And he has a job — a prestigious day job, with a difficult commute — that occupies most of his time.
Bruce Saunders, our Austin neighbor, teaches jazz guitar at the Berklee College of Music … that’s in Boston … the most renowned jazz academy in the country. Saunders has been on the Berklee faculty for two decades. He’s been commuting to Berklee, via Austin, since marriage brought him here in 2006.
Saunders knows all about life on the move, life above the clouds. No surprise, then, that he chose to title his most recent CD “Drift” — an allusion to being blown about, airport to airport, week after week. Austin to Boston. Boston to Austin. With essential detours to his old home, America’s jazz capital, New York City.
“I think of (the album) in terms of ‘continental’ drift,” says Saunders, who plays a CD release show for “Drift” at the Elephant Room Thursday night. When school is in session, “I’m always up in the air, somewhere, 20 hours a week at least, in an airport or something.”
Bruce Saunders’ music is kinda ‘up in the air,’ too — smart and dreamy, sensitive and free, a little angular, infatuated with odd meters, flying in the direction of adventure. The shy guitar professor is no ax man; he does not wail or shout. Saunders is more like a painter. As a composer, a soloist: His guitar is an instrument of color.
“Bruce is a world-class jazz artist,” says Austin saxophonist Elias Haslanger, who has known Saunders for 20 years. “We’re just lucky that he lives in Austin at all, lucky that he’s married to Jessica, who happens to live in Austin. We’re lucky on all counts … because Bruce is a magical guitarist.”
Growing up in south Florida, Bruce Saunders didn’t come to jazz right away. He was open to all forms: bluegrass, classical guitar, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Hall, Blind Willie McTell. Acoustic blues were fun — wow, Robert Johnson! — primarily because Saunders could play around with those tunes on his guitar in solitude.
Then Saunders discovered Thelonious Monk.
“I was working in this factory in Vermont, trying to earn money to go to music school. And a friend there said, ‘Man, check this out.’ It was the ‘Monk-Trane’ LP, a double LP set,” says Saunders. He’s lean, quietly self-deprecating — and clearly more comfortable talking about his heroes than himself. “You know, I really didn’t understand it at first. But the more I listened to it, the more I got interested in that music.
“There was no guitar on it. And that was OK, because it was beautiful. Like: mysterious. Like: ‘What are they doing?’”
Saunders loved Monk, first, for the pianist/composer’s sense of imagination — for the very idea behind Monk’s music. The idea of an ensemble, devoted to the free exploration of a vivid musical landscape.
Years later, Saunders’ own music — and to some extent, his approach on guitar — reflects his affection for Monk. His music doesn’t “copy” Monk. But it’s driven by the same sense of imagination, the allure of expressing something genuine yet at the same time … unlike anything else.
“Monk is an individual,” says Saunders, whose assessment of Monk reveals a lot about himself. “Nobody sounds like him. He followed his own path, no matter what. Even if he wasn’t getting gigs. There was no way he could play any different or write any different. He didn’t say, ‘Oh, OK, I’m going to write smooth jazz, so that people will like it.’
“I have to confess: When I first heard Monk on the Monk-Trane thing, I was more into Coltrane. It took, like, 25 years to truly understand what Monk was writing: his compositions, his playing, how great they both are. He’s just a genius. And the people who matter recognize that: Miles and Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Bud Powell — all those stupendous musicians who changed the way jazz is.”
Bruce Saunders believes in jazz as a reflection of democracy, freedom, discipline, expression, improvisation. As a bandleader, he’s gracious: “It’s all about the group.” Saunders rarely takes the first solo on his own recordings. He doesn’t tell members in an ensemble what to do. He talks, all the time, about writing music that enables others to shine.
“He’s a very sensitive guitar player and composer,” Haslanger says of Saunders, who majored in classical guitar at Florida State University and obtained his master’s degree from the prestigious University of North Texas jazz program in the 1980s. “He’s very empathetic. He listens. … He’s always trying to collaborate in the best possible way, whether it’s playing melody with another horn or accompanying the soloist or integrating with the rhythm section. That’s what I mean when I say he’s extremely empathetic.”
Saunders draws from a deep well of influences. His affinity for textures suggests a musical kinship with John Scofield, Pat Metheny or even Austin’s own Mitch Watkins. “Drift” — which features star New York players Gary Versace on piano and Adam Kolker on saxophone — travels very well alongside Metheny’s 2012 “Unity Band” CD, or Michael Brecker’s “Pilgrimage.”
The difference: As bandleader, Saunders is less of an instrumental focus. The most joyfully audacious solo on the entire record may belong to Versace, on “Either/Or.” Saunders tends to impress in more subtle ways on his albums, such as his ability to blend sounds — saxophone and guitar, trombone and guitar — to create a brand-new sound color.
As a guitar professor, Saunders notes a tendency toward “perfection” among today’s young jazz players, as if technical note-to-note perfection trumps emotional sincerity. “There are so many talented — unfortunately ‘perfect’ — players out there,” he says. “Sometimes, I just keep waiting for a mistake. And (when it happens) I say, ‘Yes! Thank you for leaving that in!’ ”
Saunders wonders aloud about the value of jazz contests, jazz as competition. Would Miles Davis “win” a modern jazz contest, in the company of so many “perfect” players? Would Monk even be allowed to compete? Would Trane consent to participate?
“I can listen to Joe Henderson or John Scofield. Or Miles. Or Wayne Shorter. And those are perfect solos,” says Saunders. “But if you analyze them (academically), you could say, ‘That solo is not correct.’ Yet to me, the solos are perfect. The music is perfect.”
Bruce Saunders travels so frequently he knows the faces of ticket-takers and flight attendants by heart. There’s one guy — Gary, a night manager for Jet Blue, at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport — who waves to him when he boards the plane to Boston almost every Monday night.
Saunders’ normal load at Berklee is a heavy one: 17 “live” hours a week, plus online classes for 100 students a year. But this spring, he’s decided to take a semester’s leave of absence. Saunders is still traveling, though: a two-week tour in Spain, in January. And teaching, too, at the University of Texas and Austin Community College, while maintaining his Berklee online courses.
Most of the time, on Fridays, he plays a “secret” little gig in Austin — at Sao Paulo restaurant, near the UT campus.
Saunders is never billed by name. But when he’s in town, he joins a quartet led by drummer Kevin Witt. Haslanger plays sometimes, too. Diners come and go, most unaware that one of the most imaginative guitarists in American jazz is playing just a few feet away.
Near closing time, Witt’s band kicks into a Thelonious Monk tune. Tucked away in the corner, Bruce Saunders plays the melancholy melody line of “Round Midnight,” touches the strings of his guitar in tenderness and flies, flies, flies into the spirit of jazz.
Where: Elephant Room, 315 Congress Ave.
When: 9:30 p.m. Thursday
Information: elephantroom.com; 473-2279