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High Art

[whitespace] Ron Kaplan Kapping It Off: Singer/songwriter Ron Kaplan joins other jazz enthusiasts on Sunday at San Lorenzo Park.

Aptos-based jazzman Ron Kaplan brings his new 'High Standards' stylings to Kuumbwa's birthday party

By Christopher Weir

THE MUSIC BUSINESS is nothing if not cynical. And why not? Profound talents toil in obscurity while the Spice Girls top the charts. Yanni prospers, Stevie Ray Vaughan dies. And major record deals are about as easy to secure as a seat on the Space Shuttle.

So why is Aptos-based jazz vocalist Ron Kaplan smiling?

"I'm probably very naive," Kaplan says, "which is maybe why I stay very enthusiastic and wholehearted about the music thing. Even though I've heard how tough the business is, I'm not letting that bother me."

But Kaplan is not naive, just scandalously positive. Armed with his debut recording--High Standards--he is embarking on a musical adventure whose declared destination is, predictably, a high-profile recording contract.

"I believe that if you really go after something, you can attain whatever it is you want," Kaplan says.

Committed to the American standards enshrined by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett and others, Kaplan plans to take "straight-ahead" jazz into a new era. "I'd like to carry the torch of the American songbook," he says, "to sing the great standards and keep them alive. People all over the world love this stuff. But right now there's a dearth of male singers."

To the armchair skeptic, Kaplan's words could seem positively delusional. But naysayers might want to withhold judgment until they've had a chance to listen to High Standards. Throughout the recording, Kaplan's mellifluous voice reveals style and poise, both of which bode well for a promising future.

Born in Hollywood, Calif., Kaplan evinced musical inclinations at an early age. His father was a trumpet player, his mother a jazz enthusiast. But, surprisingly, neither encouraged Kaplan's formative interest in music.

"Nobody ever really gave me lessons," he says. "It took me about 10 years to talk my father into buying me a set of drums. There wasn't a lot of support in the home environment."

In college, Kaplan took a death-and-dying course that would ultimately have a profound influence on his aspirations.

"In one of the [class] exercises," he says, "we were asked two questions: If you were on your death bed, what would be your regrets? And if you were born again, what would you really want to do? It gave me a chance to review my life at a young age. And one of the things on my list was that I wanted to play at least three instruments."

Guitar, then piano, followed the childhood drum set. All the while, he continued to sing, write songs and perform at coffeehouses. Subsequent devotion to his family and career, however, dispatched music to the back burner. In fact, it was all but forgotten. One day, though, he asked himself another question that first had been posed during the aforementioned college course: If you could have one job in life, what would it be?

"Without any hesitation, the answer came," Kaplan says. "And it was: to sing. That got me really motivated to learn everything I could about jazz."

He adds, "I think it was Frank Sinatra who said that a singer's voice doesn't mature until [he or she] is 40. And that was always in the back of my mind. I was 41 when I thought, 'Hey, what am I waiting for?' "

THREE YEARS AGO, Kaplan started crashing the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, where he frequented "jazz jam night" and began building his repertoire. He made contacts, and eventually found himself on stage with vibe player and local legend Don McCaslin.

"He allowed me to sing, so I just started showing up wherever he was," Kaplan says. "I then became his featured vocalist. It was a wonderful opportunity every weekend to just sing my ass off, stretch out and try things."

Soon, he figured it was time to make a demo. But after assembling his studio musicians, he decided to turn things up a notch.

"I figured, what the hell, I might as well go all the way and make a [retail] CD, because I had all these great players," Kaplan says. Together, those players make for a staggering lineup of local talent: pianist Smith Dobson, bassist Stan Poplin, drummer and producer Steve Robertson and tenor saxophonists Paul Contos and Donny McCaslin Jr.

"They're all virtuoso musicians, all the best cats," Kaplan says. "I felt very honored to work with them."

Recorded at Magic Sound in Santa Cruz and Bear Creek in Bonny Doon, High Standards features exceptional production, gorgeous musicianship and inspired interpretations of standards such as "A Night in Tunisia," "Summertime" and "Born to Be Blue." The arrangements are tight and intimate, leaning more toward bebop than swing. Ultimately, High Standards lives up to its name.

At times, Kaplan's vocals evoke the warmth and smokiness of Johnny Hartman, though refracted through a higher register. The appeal is immediate and the attitude confident, earning Kaplan airplay on radio jazz shows across the nation.

Meanwhile, Kaplan continues to make appearances across Monterey Bay, fine-tuning his art and seeking continued inspiration.

"The most important thing to me is finding my own voice, not sounding like other people," he says. "I don't want to sound like a cliché. I hope to make a unique statement in my own right."

He continues, "There are a lot of world problems that are transcended in the jazz community. This has something to do ... with the freedom of improvising, and the space within the form of the song, where anything can happen, where ideas and emotions can be expressed within the moment."

As for his future, Kaplan remains undaunted by the challenges ahead. "I'm looking for a major label, but I'm also laying the groundwork for doing it on my own."

He pauses, then sums up his philosophy in four simple words: "You just never know."

Ron Kaplan plays Kuumbwa's 23rd Birthday Party on Sunday (Sept. 6) at 1pm at San Lorenzo Park, SC, with Kuumbwa Honors Jazz Band and Charanga Nueve. For more info, call 427-2227.

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From the September 3-9, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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