Alan Jones and the Leroy Vinnegar Suite October 2001

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At first, it was personal for Alan Jones. His life and work had been so touched by Leroy Vinnegar, that he set out to make an album celebrating the late, legendary jazz bassist.

“But as I was writing it, and people heard about the project,” recalls Jones, 38, a Portland-based drummer and composer, “everyone was saying, ‘Yeah, Leroy, Leroy, Leroy,’ and it became clear that he is an archetypal figure; all the stuff I learned from him, other people have learned from him, too.”

Vinnegar, who died in 1999 at age 71, really was a towering presence. The first thing you’d notice was the full head of white hair above the crowd that often surrounded him. Then his smile would draw you into the embrace of his two huge palms, and you’d feel warm and safe and welcome.

So charismatic and respected was he that Vinnegar quickly became the figurehead for jazz in Portland during the 13 years he spent in the city.

“He was a magnet for anyone who cared about real jazz,” says Jones. “Anywhere I went, if Portland came up, Leroy’s name came up with it.”

In 1995, the Oregon Legislature proclaimed May 1, “Leroy Vinnegar Day,” in part to acknowledge his role in revitalizing the local scene by drawing younger crowds to his nightclub gigs. There, the grand, wild sounds of classic bebop moved his new listeners in much the way it had inspired an earlier generation in Los Angeles during the ’50s and ’60s, when Vinnegar played on over 800 recordings, performed on TV studio sessions, and helped define the style known as “the walking bass.”

Until his death from heart disease, Vinegar continued to play and record regularly. He’d go into the hospital regularly, too, and was using oxygen 15 hours a day. As soon as he’d get out, though, he’d be back on the bandstand.

“He’d barely be able to make it,” recalls Jones. “But never a word of complaint. It was his decision to do it, and he accepted that responsibility. That’s something else I learned from him.”

Indeed, Vinnegar made it his business to provide a variety of lessons to his younger colleagues. And though he was pleased by his accomplishments — “I’m proud of my career, man,” he said; “I’ve done everything that a musician could ever do” — Vinnegar was far from through. Everyone who played with him learned something valuable.

And those who worked closely with Vinnegar also saw the complexities that weren’t always visible — the impish playfulness, the stern refusal to tolerate poor musicianship, and the enduring sadness.

Jones captures all of that and more on his new CD, “The Leroy Vinnegar Suite.” With snippets of Vinnegar’s rumbling voice between many of the tunes, the bassist’s presence pervades the album. He even plays on two of the tracks. But Jones’ goal, he says, was to “start from what Leroy would do, capture the spirit of what he was after, and let it roll from there.”

In the process, Jones, who wrote the score for Michael Curry’s “Spirits,” has given further evidence that he is one of the country’s most promising composers of acoustic jazz. Adept at combining styles and eras and extending them into an unpredictable future, his elegantly muscular compositions — performed with passion and precision by the members of his Sextet– evoke the grandeur with which Vinnegar endowed his music.

“Dedication,”for instance, captures Vinnegar’s spacious restraint in a beautifully memorable melody. Most effective as a tribute, however, is the brief “The Walker reprise,”in which Jones superimposes a tape of Vinnegar telling a painfully humorous tale about trying to buy a Mercedes, over a stark, unaccompanied melody played by three horns.

Jones allows the bassist the last word on the CD, too, where Vinnegar can be heard giving comfort and encouragement to the band: “Straightahead, alright, straightahead,” he rumbles. “It’ll be OK, alright, man.”

Jones’ new album reminds us why it is that, two and one-half years after his death, wherever jazz musicians gather, it’s always “Leroy, Leroy, Leroy.”