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Ken French

Ken French Trio from left, is Ron Belcher, Ken French and Jim Zimmerman.

Submitted photo

What turns a budding 12-year-old classical pianist into a jazz man? San Francisco’s Ken French credits his family. His big sister exposed him to Eddie Harris and Les McCann’s historic “Swiss Movement” concert album, his uncle gave him Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” and his grandmother gave him the “Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz” six LP box set. And that did it.

The Napa Valley Jazz Society (NVJS) presents the Ken French Trio this Sunday afternoon at Silo’s in Napa.

On the phone last month, pianist, arranger, composer and educator French talked about those early influences. “It was those three recordings that just completely hooked me,” he said, pointing particularly to Les McCann’s piano playing on “Swiss Movement.”

“That had to be the coolest thing I’d ever heard in my life,” he added. “It was that album that really opened my mind up to jazz. Even now, if I’m feeling a little low, man I’ll put on that album and it changes my day.”

French is a busy musician. “I’m fortunate,” he said. “I really have done no other work since college. I’ve just been doing music. I teach at the Academy of Art University, I do some graduate study courses in composing and scoring for multi-media. I have probably an average of about 20 private students that I teach.”

He performs regularly with his trio and has a long-standing musical collaboration with popular Bay Area jazz vocalist Clairdee. “I heard Clairdee perform in 1988 at an AIDS benefit where I was a musical director for a different artist,” he said, “and I just was blown away by her singing.

“Fast-forward about 10 years, in 1998 we played together just by chance. She needed a substitute and I was available. Since that time, we’ve been performing together. We had some kind of simpatico immediately. We just seemed to see eye-to-eye, to have a musical vision that seemed similar. We encourage each other’s creative side. We’ve had that creative synergy from the first job that we did together.”

French refers to his mates in the trio, Ron Belcher on bass and Jim Zimmerman on drums, as “co-conspirators.” “We’re really collaborators in the full sense,” he said. “Each of us is a composer, and we bring our original music to the ensemble. I believe for this particular concert, we’re going to feature at least one, possibly two originals from each of us.

“Just like the musical simpatico I described between myself and Clairdee, when the trio started playing together, you just felt that the other person knew what you’re attempting to do and immediately knew how to assist it without necessarily using words to describe it.

“There was some kind of immediacy, we locked into each other’s groove, for instance. That doesn’t always happen, even with the greatest of players. We hear time in a similar way.

“The three of us, we like some of the same jazz trios, we like some of the same composers. And something that Jim and Ron share, they have really big ears. They really listen.”

“Jim has a vast experience traveling with a lot of ensembles,” French said, “including two great singers, Cleo Laine and Dianne Schuur. Because he’s been on the road with singers means he’s going to be a better listener. And he was a drummer with Vince Guaraldi in Vince’s last trio before he died, and recorded some of the great Vince Guaraldi stuff.

“Ron has traveled with John Handy and a multitude of other people. He’s one of the first-call bass players in the Bay Area. He’s just got this rhythmic feel, just the way he fills up the beat. He’s old-school. He knows how to walk a bass line like so few people do anymore. I just love it.”

French calls a jazz trio a three-way conversation. “It’s not about the piano player making a statement and having the other guys accompany him,” he said. “In this beautiful three-legged chair, three-legged tripod, each is basically an equal contributor and so it’s a three-way conversation.

“You know how hard it is to sit down with two other individuals and have a good three-way conversation? Usually, somebody is trying to dominate or somebody’s left out. So when you have a simpatico, when three people can speak together and have a beautiful, meaningful conversation, wow. That’s what it is.”

Sunday, Dec. 11, 4 p.m. $45 (NVJS members $25). Silo’s. 530 Main St., Napa. 707-224-5299.

Heads Up

Guitar great Mike Stern this weekend at Blue Note

Six-time Grammy nominee Mike Stern has brought his rock-fusion guitar work to Blood, Sweat & Tears, Miles Davis, the Brecker Brothers, Jaco Pastorius and many others. Aside from his Grammy recognition, Stern has been honored with the Orville W. Gibson Award for Best Jazz Guitarist, Guitar Player Magazine’s Jazz Guitarist of the Year and Certified Legend Awards and designated one of Down Beat’s 75 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. He’ll be at Blue Note Napa, two shows a night, this Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 10 and 11. $35-$55.

David Kerns is a Napa-based freelance journalist. You can view more of his work at