For what seemed like the thousandth time, Paul Rinzler sat down at the piano bench, fingers poised above the pearly white keys. It had become ritualistic, but Rinzler once again began to play the McCoy Tyner solos he had so painstakingly transcribed and had so lovingly learned to mimic.

But this time, something was different.

“It felt like I was actually inside the combo, inside the recording, playing with them. It was just a little quirk inside my head, I’m sure. But I think I had gotten so far into his music, so deeply into it, that I could literally match him note for note. Somehow I could hear it differently,” Rinzler recalled.

Rinzler had been “devouring” the great jazz pianist’s fast-paced, heavily punctuated solos since the late ’70s – a fitting venture since Rinzler first got hooked on jazz at the age of 19 through the music of John Coltrane, with whom Tyner used to play. In his 20 years of being devoted to Tyner musically, Rinzler’s self-described out-of-body, transcendental experience was the proverbial icing on the cake.

Though Rinzler admits he’s “kind of worn (Tyner) out,” his passion for jazz hasn’t waned. In his more than 10 years as Cal Poly’s director of jazz studies, Rinzler has transformed the one time barely surviving program into one whose reputation as “a band that will do anything and can play anything” precedes it, prompting well-known venues and festivals to hire the group of college musicians for professional gigs.

Practice makes perfect – or so they say

With the dissonant chords of a seemingly free jazz rehearsal resonating in the background, Rinzler hastily flips through the sheets of music in the black binder before him, quietly murmuring to himself as he prepares for the day’s hour-long big band practice.

After just a few minutes, he’s ready. He claps his hands, and the 16 men and one lone woman trumpeter gathered haphazardly before him stop warming up, giving him their full attention.

On this unusually warm February day, the University Jazz Band No. 1 is preparing for its UU Hour funk set later in the week and Saturday’s Just Jazz concert.

“Ba-da-baaa-ba-da-do-do-do . one, two, one, two, one and two,” Rinzler counts.

As the group begins to play, Rinzler watches in silence, head bobbing and left leg gently moving up and down, keeping time as the music steadily increases. He mostly listens, occasionally giving a slight nod or an encouraging smile. Every so often he’ll turn the pages of music before him, give some sort of slight hand motion or make notes on the lined paper situated on the music stand to his left.

Seated on a stool before the band, Rinzler is dressed head to toe in the same brown-beige color palate. His ensemble consists of a long-sleeved, cream-colored, button-downed shirt, the sleeves rolled neatly passed his elbows; khaki-colored slacks; and dark-brown scuffed loafers encasing socks of the same chocolaty hue.

Even his hair fits into the color scheme. Through Rinzler’s chin-length, somewhat-disheveled, mousy tresses creep an increasing amount of white strands. The cut, along with Rinzler’s receding hairline, gives the music professor the appearance of a mad scientist – something like a less-crazy version of Doc Brown of “Back to the Future” fame. When his head bobs up and down to the rhythm of the music, his locks bounce gently in place.

The eclectic mix of jazz standards and specialized repertoire the band is playing today reflects years of effort on Rinzler’s part to craft the band’s unique image.

Since coming to Cal Poly in 1997, Rinzler has sought to instill a sense of professionalism in the band, teaching them “tunes they’ve played in high school or in concert with the Cal Poly bands – or maybe they haven’t – but tunes they need to be aware of.”

But Rinzler also searches extensively for out-of-the-box musical arrangements to expand band members’ musical arsenals. For example, three years ago, university jazz groups performed Musically Incorrect. As its name suggests, the program included “music that is just wrong for a big band,” as Rinzler described it, such as songs by Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and Deep Purple. When the jazz band opened for comedian Bob Newhart another year, they performed TV-themed songs, including music by a little-known composer named Raymond Scott, who composed music for “Looney Tunes,” “Merry Melodies” and other cartoons from the ’30s and ’40s. Scott wrote the songs for a small jazz combo, so Rinzler expanded his compositions to fit the Cal Poly big bands.

Focus, focus, focus

As they finish the first song of the day, Rinzler is quick to comment on the band members’ attempt.

“It’s the first tune, but I still feel like there’s a lack of – well, maybe it’s not a lack of focus – but what comes out of the very beginning is not as precise as the tune gets by bar six. I think it’s a question of being warmed up enough and ready to go from that very first bar to make that first bar just as clean as when you play it later. It’s just a little ragged,” he instructs.

He’s not worried yet – after all, the musicians have five more days to perfect “Some Skunk Funk” before Saturday’s show. Plus, Rinzler’s no stranger to coaching students to perform their best.

About four or five years ago, for instance, Rinzler took one of the jazz bands on tour for a series of overseas performances in China.

“Taking a band overseas teaches them a lot, because they’re in a completely foreign environment. They have to figure out how to do all the same things musically that they do on their home turf, where everything’s comfortable,” Rinzler said. “They have to learn how to do all those same things in a new environment; mental factors can radically change what music sounds like.”

And this was certainly the case during the second performance of the trip. The band was playing in a small, crowded, avant-garde nightclub, and “for the first part of the set, the band was really not doing that well. They just weren’t putting any energy or emotion into the music.”

Between a couple of the numbers, Rinzler told the band something along the lines of: “Look, we’re either going to play some music or we’re not. You’ve got to find something to get excited about so that the audience can get excited.”

So he changed the repertoire a little in hopes that “it would give the band something to get excited about.” The piece he added was an Ethiopian pop song that had been converted into a big band piece. Rinzler borrowed the strange song from another band that had been experimenting with African music at the time.

The unusual piece did the trick. As the band played, something magical happened toward the end of the piece, during a section in which the band was supposed to play as loudly as possible before returning to the original theme.

“It gives you the sense of coming back home. It’s the big climax of the piece, and I told the band they did a fantastic job with it,” Rinzler said. “From that point on – at that gig and for the rest of the China tour – they won over the audience.”

Rinzler enjoyed the band’s rendition of the piece so much he almost had a seizure, he said; and the audience “tried to get us to do encore after encore.”

The essence of creativity

As the band continues to practice, Rinzler approaches the subject of solos and, by extension, the nature of improvisation.

“Actually, let me do something about solos. ‘Poultry in Motion’ is really open to any soloists, and now is your last chance if you want a solo,” Rinzler says in an effort to pin down what structure the next couple of performances will take.

Improvisation, at least philosophically, factors into Rinzler’s teaching and directing in a very big way.

“To improvise, you have to be creative – that’s the whole point. You don’t have all the notes written down in front of you; you have to create them yourselves,” Rinzler said. “Shouldn’t jazz always be creative? I mean, shouldn’t any area of jazz always be open to creativity? One of the reasons why I’ve looked at all these repertoires is that I’ve tried to be creative with the music the bands play because creativity is a part of jazz.”

That creativity comes in large part from the fact that improvisation is so central to the creation of jazz music.

On a more pragmatic level, Rinzler tries to carry on this long tradition of improvisation by encouraging students to try their hand at solos. Though Rinzler said he has better improvisers play solos come concert time, as the band is trying to put its best foot forward, he encourages anyone to pursue solos in less-formal situations like Friday’s swing dance concert.

A look ahead

The University Jazz Band No. 1 finishes its last song for the day, but Rinzler’s hard work with the group will inevitably continue.

In college, Rinzler said he remembers looking at the life his music professors had and comparing that against the life of a performing musician. At the time, he thought, “I think I’ll take what the professors got because that looks pretty good to me.” This certainly has proven true for the jazz director.

And although McCoy Tyner no longer holds the same place in Rinzler’s heart he once did, Rinzler still credits the musician with fueling his love of the genre, a love that has created quite an enjoyable career for this music professor.

“I still love (Tyner’s) music; it’s still great,” Rinzler said. “But it doesn’t hold that place up there like it always did. He kind of cleaned out that place (for favorites), where I would have just that one favorite. But it’s OK, because I still like jazz now, obviously.”

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