“I’m good at what I do.”
Sitting outside the Kensington library one recent morning, Gabriel Sundy said this in an unguarded moment as he was trying to explain his music and his life. The coffee, still fresh and steaming in the paper cup seems to be doing its job and is waking him up to the day. In another less guarded moment he also confesses, “Morning is not the best time of day for me.”
Sundy has been making a splash in the local music scene for the last several years. A reed player whose primary instrument is the baritone saxophone, he has performed with an impressive number of ensembles, including Creedle, Primo, and the sometimes very loud Bunky. Also a guitarist, he is working up a soul trio, but we’ll get to that a little later.
Close to ten years ago Sundy founded Mutant Space Boy, with the intention of combining disparate musical styles into a greater whole and featuring free improvisation. The group could at once sound like a Robin Trower tribute band to something more akin to Kraftwerk when they incorporated electronic and synthesized sounds into the mix. Sundy says that Mutant Space Boy is currently on hiatus until further consideration. “It’s a really great band, but we didn’t get the support that I was hoping for,” he says. “The last that the band played was April of last year. I had a lot on my plate, and I was trying to do too much at the time; plus some other things came up.”
One of the more popular bands that Sundy performs with is the Styletones, having played with them since their inception around 2008 or 2009. The Styletones are the real deal, churning out seventies-style soul and funk with all the gusto of a bell bottomed, platform-heeled dance line on “Soul Train.” A wailing Hammond B3, grooving rhythm section, and super tight horn section back up Steve Harris who, dressed to the nines in his signature hat and shades, sings like a latter-day Otis Redding.
The first time that Gabriel Sundy played the saxophone he was in second grade. As with most seven-year-olds, the interest in the horn didn’t last too long. When he was 12 he discovered the guitar, the electric guitar specifically. He began playing what any boy on the verge of adolescence would play: metal music, the stuff like Slayer and Testament and Anthrax.
The horn came back when Sundy was 15 and getting into a lot of music. He started going to Soma when it was downtown on Union Street. He says, “All the bands down there like Daddy Long Legs had horns. It was different stuff for me and it got me excited about music again.” He picked up the sax and studied privately. Then came the turning point that can influence a young music lover for the rest of his life, discovering the vinyl pile or CD collection of an older music fan. For Sundy it was the music collection of his mother’s boyfriend who had a pretty good jazz collection. Sundy says that this is where he was first introduced to Gerry Mulligan, Dizzy Gillespie, and other jazz icons.
He entered Mesa College, studying music. He interrupted his studies at Mesa when he moved to Orange County to play with a Los Angeles-based band, and this opportunity to play with a working band pretty much cemented his decision to make music his life. After his time in Orange County, Sundy continued his coursework at Mesa College, then transferred and graduated from San Diego State with a degree in jazz studies.
Though Sundy performs mostly around San Diego, he toured with the Industrial Jazz Group in the fall of 2009. The Industrial Jazz Group is a novel, innovative, and somewhat rambunctious ensemble of sometimes as many as 17 pieces. “Doing that tour was some of the most fun that I’ve ever had,” says Sundy. “We played some great music, challenging music, but we did not take ourselves too seriously. There was humor, even silliness. We’d wear hats and some of the band wore outfits.”
An ongoing project of Sundy’s is the Apple Brown Jazz Ensemble. The compositions Sundy writes for this unit can be angular with sometimes surprising twists and turns that test the limits of melody and harmony. He recorded with the ensemble in December but hasn’t gotten the recording mixed and mastered. “But getting that mixing and mastering, that’s going to happen real soon,” he says.
Recently Sundy worked on Pete ‘n’ Keely a doubly retro production at Lamb’s Players Theatre that takes you back to a late sixties reunion of a fifties performance duo. Sixties on top of fifties, as I said, doubly retro. The show was a crowd pleaser like Mixtape and Smoky Joe’s Café that featured chestnuts such as “Besame Mucho” and “This Could Be the Start of Something Big.” Though he appreciated the steady work, the schedule ate into the time needed for creative projects. “I was with that show for about two and a half months, really busy, and it was practically impossible to get anything done,” Sundy says. Besides his composing work, Sundy has the constant chore of a professional musician to practice, practice, practice. The labor is multiplied because he has to work on all his instruments, the baritone and tenor saxophones, clarinet and bass clarinet, flute, and electric guitar.
Currently Sundy has been rehearsing the Cool Soul Trio. Remember the insanely cool groove music that flowed out of your dashboard back in the sixties? The stuff that came out of New Orleans and Memphis from bands like the Meters and Booker T and the MGs, the music that was funk before it became Funk in the seventies. With the Cool Soul Trio Sundy recreates this infectious music with Doug Walker on bass and Matt Anoche on drums. If you see a guy playing upright bass left handed, that’s Doug Walker; and Anoche has played drums with a number of musical units around San Diego for several years now. “This is a group that I really enjoy and I want others to enjoy,” says Sundy. “The idea was to make good music that was accessible to most people, not bombastic in any way.” The band enjoyed their first performance at the Turquoise Room at the Riviera Supper Club in La Mesa last month.
The project on Sundy’s mind right now is Nexus. He put together this latest musical project during the summer, but he says that the whole idea and the type of music that he wanted to perform with this unit has been on his mind for quite some time. It all goes back to around six years ago when he met and started performing with guitarist Isaiah Mitchell in the band Followers. Mitchell is a young gun, but he channels lots of the guitar frenzy from 40 years ago when the gods of guitar walked the earth. Mitchell and Sundy talked a great deal about music. Of the music that dominated their conversations was the fusion music and progressive rock that took over the landscape of the FM dial and comprised a lot of the better vinyl that was stamped out during the seventies. Of particular interest to Sundy was John McLaughlin and his Mahavishnu Orchestra. “That was so huge. It’s just amazing to get an ensemble where every musician is playing so well. The energy and electricity the Mahavishnu Orchestra achieved is something quite wonderful,” he says.
Sundy incorporated this fascination into his graduate recital for his master’s degree at San Diego State. The first part of the program comprised the required type of material for a student graduating with a degree in jazz studies, performances of such jazz chestnuts as “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Giant Steps.”
The second portion of the program, the one in which the student is allowed a lot more leeway in choosing material, were compositions of Sundy’s that were inspired by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. “It was a real exploration at the time,” he says of the recital and the McLaughlin based music. “I was still working out some of these ideas that I was getting from fusion and progressive rock.” Nexus receives its premier performance on October 3 at Seven Grand in North Park, which also happens to be Gabriel Sundy’s birthday.
I’m essentially a jazz musician, but I listen to everything,” Sundy says, summing up his wide-ranging music and influences. “I started out listening to metal and I guess that I probably still listen to more metal, at least from time to time. The music that I write and organize as a bandleader tends not to be the material that reaches out to a popular audience.” Sundy finishes his coffee, perhaps a bit more wake now. “I write music that I want to hear. Basically I write for myself.”