When Joel Behrman relocated to the Bay Area in 2000, the trumpeter/composer was intent on renewing his commitment to jazz. He’d completed his music degree at the University of Miami and worked a series of non-jazz gigs, in clubs and on the road, and as he continued his years of dues-paying in California he realized that, in jazz, the fundamental things apply: swing, the blues, connecting with the audience.
On his superb new debut recording, "Steppin’ Back," Behrman and his band express those essential jazz values in a program of elegant originals interspersed with compositions by Ellington, Armstrong, and Joe Henderson. His collaborators represent the top tier of local players: bassist Marcus Shelby, one of San Francisco’s most illustrious bandleaders and composers; in-demand pianist Matt Clark; drummer Howard Wiley (better known as a saxophonist); tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, a Berkeley High grad who lives in New York but maintains close ties to home; and veteran trombonist Danny Armstrong, a founding member of Lavay Smith’s Red Hot Skillet Lickers.
“I wanted it to be a Bay Area project exclusively,” says Behrman, a San Jose resident. “There is a lot of talent here that’s underexposed.”
The album’s centerpiece is the leader’s compelling three-movement “Justice Suite” (Sin / Righteous Indignation / Evolution), written for the sextet. While conceived as a response to the current political climate, the suite is also very much an interior drama, “related to a personal struggle of someone trying to change, working through the anger,” Behrman says. “That could be a metaphor for all kinds of things where it doesn’t feel like justice is around.”
"Steppin’ Back" closes with “something lighthearted”: “The Faithful Hussar,” which Behrman learned from Louis Armstrong’s "Ambassador Satch." While listening to it recently with his wife, “we just started dancing to the song. Anything with that bounce needs to be heard.”