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Chances are, you have probably heard Eric Marienthal's alto saxophone even if you don't know him by name—he's played with jazz, blues, and soul legends like Stevie Wonder, Lou Rawls, B.B. King, and Ramsey Lewis, as well as superstars like Elton John. More often, you'll find him playing with contemporary jazz guys like The Rippingtons or The Yellowjackets. And sometimes he pops up in unexpected places, like The Weather Channel's "Local on the 8s."
Marienthal, a Berklee College of Music Graduate, is a former member of Chick Corea's Elektric Band; he's now lead alto chair with Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band. Lately, he's also been collaborating with St. Louis brothers Mike and Rob Silverman, jazz musicians whose bands have included The Downtown Trio, Classical Jazz Quartet, and the classical-jazz fusion project Bach to the Future (sporty types might also remember them from the house band for KPLR's The Fan Show). Mike plays piano, and Rob's a percussionist; both Silvermans say they are jazz players through and through, though their father played cello with the Symphony for 42 years (so perhaps they are classical musicians, just through osmosis). Mike Silverman says they invited Marienthal to St. Louis on a whim, and to their delight, he accepted. So they quickly organized an indoor festival, dubbed the Autumn Hill Jazz Festival after their record label. Marienthal's been collaborating with the Silvermans long-distance from Los Angeles, emailing .wav files to them in St. Louis; Friday's concert at The Sheldon marks the first time the band—which also includes bassist Matt Bollinger and violinist Andrew Driscoll—will perform with him.
"We’ll do a combination of our music, which is classical music, performed as jazz, and some of his biggest hits—he’s had a number of hits on smooth jazz radio in particular—so that’s going to be the last hour of the evening," Mike says. The lineup will also include legendary jazz pianist Ptah Williams, trumpeter Dawn Weber's trio, and jazz guitarist and Webster professor Tom Byrne, who'll perform in the lobby prior to the performance.
This isn't the Silvermans' first walk in the park when it comes to jazz festivals—they are the organizers of U. City's free Jazz Festival in Heman Park, which is now heading into its third year. And Mike says that on June 15, they'll be doing their first Chesterfield Jazz Festival. "It will have a couple of big national names, in addition to great St Louis talent: David Benoit, and Paul Taylor," he says. "I’m excited; I’ve never brought in national talent... It really looks like it is going to be an annual event. Then of course there is this one, which we’re doing at the Sheldon. I wanted to do an indoor festival too, because that way we could possibly do it early spring, late fall, not be stuck with just warm weather."
The brothers say that St. Louis has a track record of not celebrating its jazz artists as much as it could, so that was part of their inspiration in organizing these festivals. The desire to recognize the city's jazz talent also sparked another project: this summer, they will begin recording local jazz legends on their own Autumn Hill label.
"The purpose of the festival is multi-level," Rob says. "We are going to shine a spotlight on St Louis jazz legends, as well as some of the up-and-comers. New Orleans does such a good job with showcasing its jazz talent, and St Louis sure has a lot of it, and as jazz players, this is our passion. We happen to have a recording studio and our own record label. Our albums have been selling fantastically on iTunes, and we want to branch out and start to feature everybody else around here."
The first artist they'll record is Ptah Williams. "He’s been a hero of mine since I was a teenager," Mike says. "I used to sneak down into the old Cicero’s basement bar, when they used to have great jazz every Sunday night. Ptah was one of my big inspirations, growing up in U City."
The second will be drummer Maurice Carnes. "He’s been on number one selling jazz records, and he just plays with everybody," Rob says. "He’s a real low-key guy that is a first-call jazz drummer in St Louis."
The project is all about cultural preservation, he adds. "We’re actually going to give them full rights to their recordings. They can do whatever they want; we don’t hold the rights to the masters, we don’t prohibit them from selling them or doing anything they want with them. We just want to get it recorded, and then we’re going to put it online, and if there’s any back end royalties, we certainly want everyone to get paid."
The Silvermans aren't going to neglect their own music in the meantime, though. Bach to the Future has a 20-city tour mapped out for later this year, and they're in the midst of other recording projects, including an album called Rob Silverman's Electromusicology, which features digital collaborations with Marienthal, trumpeter/flugelhorn player Randy Brecker, bass player John Patitucci, and guitarist Dweezil Zappa. Mike admits that it is all a little "overwhelming," but says so with a laugh, his voice totally calm, as if to say that for people who are passionate about St. Louis jazz, it's all in a day's work.
"When you look at all the famous musicians that came out of just U. City high school alone, it’s amazing," Rob says. "And that’s not the only one; they’re coming out of everywhere. There’s a scene. If more people got out and supported it, they would know about it. There’s jazz happening every single night in St Louis, and there are really, really great players out there. And really, really great music is being played and not even being heard by that many people. So we are just trying to get that music heard, not just in our own city, but also around the world."
The Autumn Hill Jazz Festival happens Friday, March 29, 7 to 10 p.m., at The Sheldon Concert Hall, located at 3648 Washington. Tickets are $15 and available at the door or by calling MetroTix at 314-534-1111 or by visiting metrotix.com. Proceeds benefit Music for Lifelong Achievement, a not-for-profit based at The Sheldon that collects and refurbishes musical instruments for financially disadvantaged local music students.