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Beyond Skin Deep

James Zitro
Increase Your Urning Power: Composer and drummer James Zitro leads his jazzy ensemble Zytron on a musical adventure through the world of virtuoso melodies at Kuumbwa on Friday night.

Percussionist James Zitro travels the wide world for gigs and inspiration but remains relatively unknown in his Santa Cruz hometown

By Kelly Luker

THE GOOD BOOK TALKS ABOUT a certain someone being appreciated darn near everywhere but his own hometown. Although musician James Zitro doesn't walk on water yet, he seems bedeviled by the same vexation. Although the jazz percussionist has toured most every continent in the world, played on more than 20 albums and made sweet melodies with such heavy hitters as Zoot Sims and Charles Lloyd, Zitro goes largely unnoticed here in Santa Cruz.

Too bad, since reviewers, critics and fans can't say enough about Zitro's style--"swinging bopper," "beautifully structured, crisp and dynamically sensitive," and "amazing." The 54-year-old drummer, who appears all too infrequently with his band Zytron here in Santa Cruz, has been playing the skins for half a century. He began his musical career before kindergarten, studying classical piano and percussion at the urgings of his opera singer mother and pianist father. By 17, he was playing in the U.S. Air Force marching band, and by 21 he was trading licks on stage in San Francisco with the legendary John Coltrane.

Still, like all good parents, his were properly horrified when Zitro announced plans to make drumming his vocation. The young man made good on his word. Until recently, Zitro has managed to eke out a living while making himself and music lovers happy with his talented hands.

"What makes me different from most drummers," Zitro explains, "is that I'm a composer, too. One of the fruits of my parents making me study piano is that I acquired a melodic and harmonic interest in music, not just rhythmic."

His unique compositions show how Zitro's talents have gestated in so many different cultures. East Indian, Native American, Latin and African threads weave their way through Zitro's works, shining through exotic percussion instruments far removed from the standard traps and snares. As Zitro says, "In the kind of music I play, the drummer has more room to create than in blues or rock, where they're mainly the time-keeper."

Zitro's music also shows the influence of "a life examined," of his own spiritual work. Don't worry, there's not a false, New Agey note in his repertoire, only the tell-tale signature of someone who's done some hard searching--and, perhaps, got a glimpse.

Although Zitro is convinced that there seems to be a growing interest in jazz, that interest hasn't seemed to trickle down to Santa Cruz. Indeed, most people here wouldn't know Thelonious Monk from the Monkees or Chet Baker from Chet Atkins and might be hard pressed to name one other local jazz group besides Don McCaslin's Warmth. As Zitro says, "Santa Cruz has been kind of fickle about supporting jazz."

For that reason, Zitro decided to go back to school after 35 years to get his counseling credentials and now works as a substance abuse counselor for the El Dorado Crisis outpatient program. "After 50 years, I finally took a day job," the drummer laughs.

Fortunately for us, he will keep creating and performing his music. Unfortunately, this Friday may be the only time to catch him locally this year. In a special appearance with legendary Indian musician Ashwin Batish, Zitro and his band Zytron--Murray Low on piano, Kenny Stahl on flute, Rob Fisher on bass--will be performing at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. Jazz aficionados will be coming out of the woodwork for this one, so folks in the know suggest getting tickets early.

Zytron featuring James Zitro plays Friday (8pm) at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., SC. Tickets cost $6 at the door. Call 427-2227.

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From the March 27-April 2, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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