Tell Us About Your Favorite 'Great Unknown' Jazz Musicians

Rich Perry i

Rich Perry earns little acclaim, but makes a lot of music. Tell us: who else? Erik Jacobs for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Erik Jacobs for NPR
Rich Perry

Rich Perry earns little acclaim, but makes a lot of music. Tell us: who else?

Erik Jacobs for NPR

At this year's CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival, I snuck out briefly from my Quad Stage post to catch the Maria Schneider Orchestra. I only had time for about two tunes' worth, but those two were among my most favorite favorites of her repertoire: "Choro Dancado" and "Aires De Lando." And I've been listening to the recording we commissioned, which is available for online streaming here.

The former is notable for featuring Rich Perry on tenor sax — see a 2004 version of the tune below. Perry isn't a household name for most; offhand, I'm hard-pressed to recall reading about any records he's led, though I gather he's made at least 16 of 'em for SteepleChase Records, and played on some 70+ others. (Shows how much I know.) Among non-musicians, he's probably best known as that dude with the frumpy hair in the front row of Schneider's band.

But man, he slays this "Choro Dancado" solo, all manner of gruff wailing, expository meandering across the bar line and tiered waterfalls down the register. To break down the form a bit, the piece goes: opening themes —> Rich Perry solo —> band swells under Perry heroism, then fades —> quiet Frank Kimbrough solo —> band swells —> Rich Perry reprise rides roughshod over band —> climactic closing themes. So much did Schneider intuit that Perry would play a great solo, that she wrote a second solo for him into the score. (More tellingly, Schneider's latest album, Sky Blue, features a tune called "Rich's Piece.")

Perry is one of the best-kept secrets of professional jazzmen and women. He's one of the many "unsexy" (regardless of actual physical appearance) guys and gals who aren't making covers and headlines in magazines and newspapers and radio interviews, but are appearing frequently, staying on the scene, "in the trenches," so to speak. And he's earned the great respect of some awfully talented, more visible folks. He's a musician's musician, and not even the type who's earned a modicum of public recognition for it over a long career. In short, he's a "great unknown."

Who are your favorite great unknown jazz musicians?

There are no strict criteria to be considered a great unknown — really, almost every jazz musician of quality could stand a good deal more attention. But I would submit that there are some players who are really good, and invest in a publicity campaign, or have recorded as leaders for major/major-indie labels, or get more than a blurb in the New York Times, etc. In contrast, there are other players who are really good, and for whatever reason, don't have any of the foregoing.

We don't mean to perpetuate the sort of "tall poppy-ism" that tends to plague small communities such as jazz. Quite the opposite, really; the aim here is to bring out anybody who deserves greater recognition. They can be more obscure than Perry, or also the recipient of more buzz. (As a historical example, there have been resurgences of interest in Herbie Nichols and Booker Little in the last 20 years, but they'll likely never be as much a part of the register as Bill Evans or Freddie Hubbard.) It's all relative here.

Tell us who those folks are, for you. And why. And we'll spotlight some of your responses soon.

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