Eric Marienthal is among my favorite saxophonists, an artist capable of moving seamlessly from straight ahead to smooth jazz to funk.
Audiences will have the opportunity to see him make those moves this weekend as one of the featured performers at Brian Culbertson’s Napa Valley Jazz Getaway. Now in its third year, the event runs Wednesday through Sunday and features performances from the likes of Eric Benét, Lee Ritenour, Dave Grusin, Earl Klugh, Mavis Staples, Eric Darius, David Benoit and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Marienthal performs Thursday at the Lincoln Theatre as part of the Jazz Legends Night lineup that includes Grusin, Ritenour, Klugh and Benoit. He returns to that stage the next day for Friday Night Funk Night, which will feature a complimentary wine tasting reception, silent auction benefiting The Grammy Foundation and performances by The Ohio Players, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Culbertson and The Funk Experience with Darius and Marqueal Jordan.
(Let me just insert here that among my regrets in 25 years of journalism was never having the opportunity to interview The Ohio Players. “Love Rollercoaster” was among the first singles I ever bought and every time I hear “Fire” or “Fopp,” I am out of my seat and doing my thang. Of course, the band’s album covers played a small but significant role in my adolescent years.)
Marienthal has been a favorite of mine since releasing “Walk Tall,” his 1988 tribute to Cannonball Adderly. Born in San Mateo and raised in Sacramento and then Southern California, the saxophonist has plenty of straight-ahead jazz credentials to augment his status as one of smooth jazz’s most popular players.
That Marienthal is comfortable playing across a range of genres is to be expected given his upbringing. He noted to me in an interview a few years back that pre-rock pop initially inspired his love of music.
"We didn’t hear a whole lot of straight-ahead jazz,” he said of his family life. “Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat ‘King’ Cole and all the classics were always on. One of the early influences was hearing Boots Randolph on the stereo at home.”
Jazz eventually caught the budding saxophonist’s ears – Bird, Trane, Cannonnball – and by high school he was playing in Southern California honor bands and alongside the likes of Chuck Mangione, Bill Evans and Hubert Laws at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
From there, it was on to Boston’s Berklee College of Music and, at age 20, his first real professional gig with Al Hirt.
"Some of the band members were older, established guys but half the band was guys like myself, just out of college,” Marienthal recalled. “(In school), you really didn’t have any idea of what was going on out there in the professional world.
"So had (Hirt) not been as friendly and not as nice a guy as he was, it could have been a real turn off. But he was just such a classy guy and so generous and very open and very cool.”
Marienthal returned to Southern California after his year with Hirt and began gigging and playing sessions. Chick Corea saw him in a club and within two months asked Marienthal if he would join his new Elektric Band.
"It took me about a nanosecond to answer that question,” Marienthal joked.
The Elektric Band went on to record six albums; Corea also produced Marienthal’s solo debut effort, “Voices of the Heart.” The saxophonist in addition has toured and recorded with the Rippingtons.
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