REVIEW: Topeka native lifts TJW (The Topeka Jazz Workshop)

Born and bred in Topeka, singer extraordinaire Ron Gutierrez proved anew why he is in a league of his own nationally and regionally in a Sunday afternoon Topeka Jazz Workshop concert that lifted body and soul.

Putting his compelling voice and winning personality to the test with such standards as "Night and Day" and soul-funk classics like "The Look of Love," the singer thrilled a full house at the Ramada Hotel and Convention Center with a musical persona that was part Sinatra, part Stevie Wonder and all Ron Gutierrez.

Gutierrez's stylistic breadth works because of his superior musicianship. His bluesy phrasing, razor-sharp intonation and breath-taking range that takes his rich baritone into the stratosphere with an impressive falsetto range are among his many assets.

The singer is also a compelling storyteller. In his heartfelt limning of "When I Fall in Love" accompanied by the wonderful Kansas City pianist Charles Williams, Gutierrez brought us into a shimmering romantic world whose enduring sentiments were at once personal and universal.

What a great voice. What great diction. We were wowed.

Throughout the afternoon, Gutierrez received first-class backing from Williams, as well as guitarist Will Matthews, bassist Steve Rigazzi and drummer Mike Warren, all from KC. Also on board was Carlos Martinez, a master Brazilian percussionist swept to Topeka in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Gutierrez's adept programming is also to be commended. In the first "acoustic" set, the singer beautifully reframed chestnuts, such as the touching Louis Armstrong hit, "What a Wonderful World." In the second "electric" set, with Williams and Rigazzi moving to electric piano and bass, the singer segued to pop hits of the 1970s and 1980s, such as "Just the Two of Us."

Gutierrez, whose personal warmth also was palpable in his effective announcements, made a telling point in thanking his sidemen for upping the artistic ante due to their jazz experience. Here, the insinuating fusions of jazz and pop worked at all levels. Indeed, by reconnecting his music to the impulse to move, to dance, Gutierrez had us shaking and baking — as well as listening.

Among the afternoon's show-stoppers was Gutierrez's singular take on the Nora Jones megahit, "Don't Know Why." Cool and hip, and also the quintessence of restrained intensity, Gutierrez's soulful plaints were perfectly counterpointed by the effectively wired forays of Williams and Matthews.

Sitting on the stage just to the right of the singer was an alto saxophone, which though untouched, was the singer's tacit tribute to his father, the late Tony Gutierrez, whose inspired playing lifted Topeka bandstands during the 1950s and 1960s.

With a grooving version of the Peter, Paul and Mary classic, "If I Had a Hammer," Gutierrez left us with "love for our brothers and sisters all over this land." We stood and cheered as one.

Salute Ron Gutierrez! It was an exultant afternoon!

Chuck Berg is a professor at The University of Kansas.

REVIEW: Ron Gutierrez
Live At The Mac Volumes One And Two

Personnel: Ron Gutierrez (vocals); Charles Williams (piano/keyboards); Craig Akin (acoustic and electric bass); Kevin Wickliffe (drums/percussion); Wayne Goins (guitar)

Special Guest Artists: Jim Mair (tenor sax); Rod Fleeman (guitar)

This double CD, recorded last October at the Manhattan (KS) Arts Center is just what you'd expect from seasoned pro, Ron Gutierrez. Several adjectives attach appropriately to his sound: warm, personable, effortless – not to be dismissive of his energy, witness opener “Route 66.” (BTW, although the rhythm section's intro is a clinic in swing, it isn't the singer's key. The transition is a winker –

Charles Williams' rhapsodic piano ushers in “Since I Fell for You,” the breathy ballad mostly front-phrased, the second bridge punctuated with facile leaps. Note: Gutierrez has a full complement of vocal tools which he uses discriminately. A “Big Noise...” bass intro punches up “Autumn Leaves,” the introductory chorus featuring voice/bass only. (Ron's phrasing/voicings remind me of Lloyd Schad, one of my all-time favorites.) Akin's stalwart bass fills the donut and Wayne Goins contributes a roarin' guitar solo, the first of many.

“ Georgia ” follows, a l2/8 feel underpinning Gutierrez's savvy tenderness. Another great piano solo – each is praiseworthy – offers a polished excursion through the familiar changes. After mellow bossa “Night and Day,” Akin's bass once more accompanies the reflective baritone's “One For My Baby,” wherein he effectively preaches the bridge, then delivers the outchorus with resolute torment. Nice.

The liner notes refer to a “bonus track” but you'll have to wait a bit for the sound. I thought my player was malfunctioning but after a l-o-n-g pause, a rompin' “Teach Me Tonight” emerged. Gutierrez pulls out his pop chops and sails through this (second) closer with surprise guests Jim Mair (tenor) and Rod Fleeman (guitar) delivering masterful turns. There's also a fine bass solo but the liner notes don't reference the player and Gutierrez's acknowledgement is unintelligible.

Kevin Wickliffe's cadence introduces “Summertime,” Volume Two's funky first cut. Grover Washington 's cyclical “Just the Two of Us” follows, a quasi-rock crowd-pleaser with Goins contributing a brief but nice comp behind the vocal. Gutierrez has impeccable chart-sense, his scatting predictably smooth and clever.

“The Look of Love” is true to the vocal blueprint, also boasting Goins' Benson-like double stops and Williams' passionate keyboard. “When I Fall in Love” is butter-melting tender with only a slight woof: it's “forever” and “never” - but with Gutierrez's sonorous warmth and the ability to utilize grace note attacks and releases at will, who cares? A perfect piano solo – complete command and control guiding the romantic ideation – completes this choice.

The unconventional intervals which characterize Stevie Wonder's “It Knocks Me Off My Feet” are no problem for R.G. and this version provides a major seam for Goins' ravishing guitar solo. Check out this singer's falsetto in “Going in Circles,” the intense (and rangy) ballad made even more special via Akin's pensive bass interlude.

Goins' sassy guitar atop a familiar syncope immediately reveals what's next (and last): Benson's “On Broadway,” nicely covered – and then some – with a fiery scat solo and yet another Goins gem. If it seems I've neglected Kevin Wickliffe's contribution to these discs, it's unintentional. Having once been married to a drummer (the father of my two incredible offspring), I know how they often fail to feel the love. Wickliffe is content to serve as timekeeper, punctilious...pulsating...imaginative (p.r.n.) and – here – delivers an extended duet with Goins, then (briefly) Akin, with time to spare (pun intended). This one wins for distance at 8:03 .

Gutierrez is enchanting, the rhythm section is worth the price alone, and all deserve your attention and support for an ambitious effort fully realized.

"He will sing for his father"

Ron Gutierrez will sing with the Topeka Jazz Workshop Band in which his father, Tony, used to play.

When Ron Gutierrez joins the Topeka Jazz Workshop Band next weekend to perform the opening concert of the Topeka Jazz Workshop Inc.'s 2006-07 season, there is no doubt he will be thinking about his father.

Tony Gutierrez, who died Dec. 28, 2001, at age 70 at his home in Topeka, played saxophone in the Topeka Jazz Workshop Band when Ron Gutierrez was a boy.

At one time, the senior Gutierrez had his own aspirations of a professional career in jazz, his son said. Instead, he married, had children, and supported them as a letter carrier and later as postmaster of the postal station at the Kansas Statehouse.

As for music, Tony Gutierrez became a weekend warrior.

"Dad had stopped playing in clubs, so I never really heard him play in a combo, just with a big band," Ron Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez showed his musical talents at Sacred Heart and Hayden High schools.

"I started singing in kindergarten," he said. "You know, every class has the jock and the smart kid. Well, I was the singer."

After graduating from Hayden in 1989, Gutierrez did a semester at Washburn University and one at The University of Kansas.

"I knew what my talent level was, but I didn't know how to pursue it," he said.

Things began to change when Eddie Wakes, another singer from Topeka, introduced Gutierrez to his brother, Hal Wakes, who fronted a popular dance band in Kansas City, the Atlantic Express. Gutierrez began singing for Atlantic Express in 1995.

Eddie Wakes moved to Nashville.

"Eddie had been in Nashville for a couple of years and was making some really good inroads and connections," Gutierrez said. "So he called me one day and said, 'You know, Ron, I haven't heard anybody like us down here, so you should move down here, and we'll take the town.'"

Not sure whether he could trust Wakes' assessment, Gutierrez went for a week in November 1998. He sat in with Wakes at one of his gigs, and word got around quickly about the great new singer in town.

A reputation, Gutierrez said, "spreads really fast, like wildfire, if you're good. It spreads faster if you're bad."

His experience "sealed the deal," and on Jan. 3, 1999, Gutierrez left Topeka for Nashville to await Wakes' return from a gig.

Well, days passed without word, so when Gutierrez heard one of his new musical acquaintances has spoken to Wakes, he asked if his overdue friend had said when he was going to be back in Nashville.

The reply was: "Oh, Eddie's not coming back. He moved to Puerto Rico."

"I quit my job that I loved, left my family. I still had boxes in the back of my car. I just wanted to cry," Gutierrez recalled thinking.

However, Gutierrez's singing ability got him gigs, and he filled in his free time doing telemarketing where a co-writer recommended he check out the "musicians wanted" ads in the Nashville Scene, a sister publication of The Pitch.

Gutierrez was about to pull in his drive and go to bed when he thought, "No, I'll go out and pick one up."

It was providential.

At a nearby supermarket, he found the last copy of the past week's edition.

"The next day the brand new ones would have come out," he said, and the new edition didn't have an ad for open auditions for singers for the U.S. Army Band.

"Had I gone home that night, never would I have known, probably, that the Army Band existed or that they auditioned singers," he said.

Having already served in the Army Reserves, Gutierrez wasn't sure he wanted to return to the service full time but decided the audition experience wouldn't hurt.

"I sang 'Summertime' and something else," he recalled, and was promptly invited to go to Washington, D.C., all expenses paid, as a finalist for the Army Chorale.

"For me, it was a free trip to D.C., although I had absolutely no intention of taking the job," he said.

Some members of the Army Blues Jazz Ensemble were impressed by Gutierrez' singing and told him if he signed up for the Army Chorale he also could sing with them. They invited him to their concert.

"They just blew me away. They were just phenomenal," he said.

Because he had already been through basic training in the Reserves, after just six weeks in Nashville, he returned briefly to Topeka to settle up his affairs and was back in Washington the first week of April 1999.

"A month later, I was doing the backup vocals for Aaron Neville on PBS on the National Memorial Day Concert," he said.

Because of his civilian experience, Gutierrez would be tasked to do solo gigs with just a pianist or a small combo. His first solo gig was to sing a song in both English and Spanish for the Spanish defense minister at a State Department reception.

Gutierrez said he found himself before the performance drinking a soda on the rooftop terrace of the State Department.

"You look directly across and there's the Washington Monument. You look to your right and there's the Lincoln Memorial, and the Capitol is down on the left," Gutierrez recalled.

He turned to the soldier who was his pianist and said: "Do you believe three months ago I was in Topeka or that I was living in a room in a basement of a house in Nashville two months ago? This is unreal. Do you believe we're getting paid for this, to do one song?"

Gutierrez loved his time in Washington, D.C., except for "that day."

"That day" was Sept. 11, 2001.

Gutierrez was at his apartment watching coverage of the World Trade Center attacks when he heard and felt the explosion of the airliner crashing into the Pentagon about a mile and a half away. He would spend the next several days in the relief effort.

The rest of his Army experience was positive as he got the opportunity to sing at places like Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center.

He developed a ritual.

"Wherever I'd play, I'd call my dad from backstage, and ask, 'Hey, Dad, guess where I'm at?' That was our thing," he recalled.

Then his father died, something that really hit home when before a concert just days after the funeral he found himself walking to a payphone to call his father.

"I lost some of my motivation at that point," Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez left the Army in 2003. A deal with Verve Records didn't come through, and Gutierrez was back in Kansas City not sure what to do.

Gutierrez enrolled in spring 2005 at KU only to find that he couldn't concentrate. He said he knew if he didn't try again to make his mark in music he would regret it.

So that is what Gutierrez is doing, with the encouragement and support of his newlywed wife, Aggie, and his family, including his mother, Pauline, who is his biggest fan in Topeka.

"We're picking up steam," said Gutierrez, who has had some high-profile gigs in Kansas City, including the vocalist last year at the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra's "A Toast to Sinatra" concert and singing at the holiday lighting ceremony last Thanksgiving at the Country Club Plaza.

Gutierrez wowed the audience in June at the Coleman Hawkins Legacy Jazz Festival in Topeka and will return for a second year to the Kansas State Fair where in addition to three concerts, he will sing the national anthem to open a grandstand show by the Steve Miller Band.

However, a special moment will come next Sunday when Gutierrez sings with the Topeka Jazz Workshop Band.

"It means a lot, and I really didn't think about it until recently," he said, "but it's that whole full circle. A lot of the things that I'm experiencing, gig to gig, behind the scenes, hanging out with musicians, setting up for a gig, these are the same footsteps my dad took."

He added: "To step up on stage with the band he played in is a really, really cool feeling. I'm really going to treasure that. I really am."

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