LA Jazz Scene

"Musician Theo Saunders never fails to amaze and to satisfy his listeners with his pianism.  His virtuosity at the keyboard, his creative programming and selection of players usually results in a superb evening of entertainment."


"...the real solid values of Saunders' writing, along with his playing, constitute the album's chief virtue."


Los Angeles Times

" A rhythm team composed of Ted Saunders on piano...provided blistering support on the up-tempos, with exemplary solos."

Los Angeles Times

"Pianist Saunders' powers of interpretation and invention are forces to be reckoned with; on an average night he's provocative, on a good night he's mind-bending."

Arts Journal Blog

Sonny Fortune

February 21, 2016 by Doug Ramsey — Leave a Comment

At the Portland Jazz Festival, scheduling is tight and overlapping. Sullivan Fortner at Classic Pianos (see the previous post) opened the festival simultaneously with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra at the Newmark Theatre and alto saxophonist Sonny Fortune at Jimmy Mak’s club.

Fortune, 75, has lost none of the force that he took from Philadelphia to New York when he joined drummer Elvin Jones in 1967. Opening his late set at Mak’s he launched into Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” with volume and intensity that surprised a man at a ringside table into yelling, “Whoa.” Whoaing was the last thing on Fortune’s mind. For the rest of the evening, he poured energy into every note, abetted by a rhythm section locked onto his wavelength. Following Fortune’s “Footprints” explosion, pianist Theo Saunders eased off before invigorating his solo in a series of keyboard [urries and parallel chords.

In Fortune’s “Waynge,” dedicated to Shorter, he played a series of repetitions that amounted to a rhythmic composition within a composition. Tenor saxophonist Azar Lawrence, who had introduced the band, sat in on the tune for a busy solo. Following John Coltrane’s death, Lawrence worked with Coltrane’s pianist McCoy Tyner. He was to be featured later in the festival in a concert dedicated to Coltrane.

Fortune ]lled the room with his cavernous flute sound in his “Awakening,” opening it unaccompanied

and exploring harmonic relationships. After the rhythm section joined him, he played a long solo that worked into another affair with rhythmic displacement. Saunders’ solo developed a pattern that seemed to draw on “A Love Supreme.” Franklin made attractive use of sliding notes in his solo. The ballad highlight of the set was “A Tribute to Billie Holiday,” a Fortune composition with intriguing harmonies of which Saunders and Franklin took advantage.

Throughout the set, bassist Henry Franklin, a contemporary of Fortune, frequently smiled at Saunders in reaction to a felicitous phrase or chord change. The rhythm section listened keenly to one another. Drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith—at 55 the youngster in the quartet—has been valuable over the years to Art Farmer, Dave Holland, Steve Coleman and Archie Shepp, among dozens of

others. A sympathetic accompanist and an imaginative improviser, he was fast and resourceful in a solo on “Caravan” that to great effect incorporated brushes, then mallets. In Fortune’s solo on the Juan Tizol piece, he vamped at length with the rhythm section before arriving at a paraphrase of parts of the melody, vamped again and busied himself with riffing whose resemblance to “Flight of the Bumblebee” may have been a coincidence. Amused, Franklin bestowed beatific smiles on the saxophonist, who didn’t notice. Fortune’s solo went on for chorus after chorus. When he finally wrapped it up and ended the tune, the audience applauded, cheered and rose to its feet for an ovation. Fortune bowed and smiled vaguely, as if he knew something they didn’t. 

Words About Music

Live review: The Gathering at the Mayme Clayton Museum


".....with a skull cap covering his gray hair, Theo Saunders displayed an ideal of how to play jazz on the free side. His complex chordings laid out a posh rug that could support the whole ensemble; his solos told vivid stories; when another soloist grabbed his attention, he answered with wit and spark.  Saunders has played with a boggling list of major names -- locally he"s often up there with Azar lawrence and Henry Franklin __ so the Gathering hookup, as Sharps (Jesse) gratefully acknowledged, is a natural."

The Portland Journal

"Saunders provides shimmering backdrop and some sparkling lead efforts of his own. Saunders excites you with deliberate thematic development which builds to climatic resolution."


"Theo Saunders has a talent for constructing elegant solos in linear melodies melt seamlessly into rich, two-handed chords."


"Pianist Theo Saunders plays laudably in both jazz and Afro-cuban styles and can mix them nicely."

Cadence Magazine

Saunders plays with such unobstructed passion and pulse that he seems to become the blood pumping through this ensemble"s veins."

LA Weekly

"But the high point for us is Theo Saunders again, fronting his own sextet. He's collected some exceptional players: tenor Chuck Manning and alto Zane Musa, his longtime trombonist David Dahlsten, and the powerful team of bassist Jeffrey Littleton and drummer Tony Austin.  Saunders is an underrated composer; his pieces can be difficult, if beautiful, and are rhythmically complex, and his solos are always surprising.  For some reason, we really dig his unpredictably right-on-the-money comping best of all.......this just might be the recession busting gig of the week."

KJAZZ Arts & Music Blog

September 10, 2015 by Helen Borgers

Theo SaundersPianist/Composer Theo Saunders has a new disc out. It’s called Jassemblage, and is inspired by the work of Assemblage Artist George Herms. In his liner notes, Theo wrote, “George has been a jazz fan for most of his adult life and a number of his works are dedicated to some of his favorite musicians--Monk, Trane, Miles and the like. He inspired me to write some ‘music assemblages’ that reflected his work.”

My understanding of “Assemblage Art” was that it was formed out of “found” or “discarded” objects, and I didn’t see how one could “find” “discarded” music. But Theo kindly pointed out that the Oxford Dictionary defines Assemblage Art as “a work of art made by grouping together found or unrelated objects.”

So, although the tunes on this new disc may be related because they are jazz tunes or, in some cases, written by the same composer, Theo explained, “I didn’t want to choose two tunes with the same chord structure (two blues or two rhythm changes tunes). That would have been too obvious. And, as Vincent Van Gogh wrote his brother, Theo, ‘ignore the obvious and exaggerate the essential.’ So, I looked for more challenging combinations. Also, as it states in my liner notes, the musicians are improvising, not only on the combination of the assemblage chord changes of two or more tunes, but also on the forms combined.”

“I’ve taken some of the iconic jazz compositions of the latter half of the 20th century (‘So What,’ ‘All Blues,’ ‘Song for My Father,’ ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,’ ‘Take Five,’ ‘Moanin’,’ and so on) by some of its leading composers (Monk, Trane, Miles, Duke, Dizzy, et al) and put them together in such a way so that the improvisations are based on a combination of the chord changes and forms of two or more of these compositions. The results are straight-ahead, melodic, and fresh! George is fond of saying that he ‘turns [crap] into gold!’ In my case, I’ve taken gold and turned it into ‘Bling!’”

Theo Saunders JassemblageEvery track is a winner on this disc, but there are a couple of real surprises. One is the mixing of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” with Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments,” for what Theo calls “I Steal Good Moments.” Louis Van Taylor gets funky on his alto, with soulful solos from trombonist George Bohanon and Theo on piano, and too-brief spots from bassist Henry “The Skipper” Franklin and dynamite drummer Kendall Kay. But my personal favorite cut is “Take Five Moans.” First, there is what seems to me the incredibly difficult mix of rhythms of “Moanin’” and “Take Five,” which the band handles as though it were a simple matter. Then, there are terrific solos! Louis on alto, Chuck Manning on tenor, George on trombone, and a short-but-tasty tribute to Joe Morello from Kendall Kay! Wonderful!

There are two tracks on the new disc that feature assemblages of music by Thelonious Monk. One mixes seven tunes by Monk, the other, two. I asked Theo why there was so much Monk, and he answered, reasonably enough, “Why not? I wished I could have done more!” But there was more to it than that.

Theo Saunders JassemblageTheo and George Herms met in 2010 and collaborated (along with Bobby Bradford) on a performance piece that was staged in 2011 at the Redcat Theatre in LA. Two of the “jassemblages” on the CD were performed live on stage, ‘Rubistrophy’ (combining ‘Ruby, My Dear’ and ‘Epistrophy’) and ‘Naimanox,’ (a blend of John Coltrane’s ‘Naima’ and ‘Equinox’). “George has dedicated several of his works to Monk and Trane so I thought it appropriate to parallel [on the CD] what was happening on stage at the time.”

“George’s theatre piece reflected his life in art and jazz. Jazz has been a big influence on him ever since he got ‘hooked’ at the Lighthouse [Howard Rumsey’s iconic jazz club in Hermosa Beach] in 1957. We had two bands on stage: Bobby Bradford’s Motet (7 pieces) and my band, The Lesstet (6 pieces). We also had an opera singer! Our two bands played separately and also simultaneously during the course of the performance. George would be creating art (collages) on stage while we played. They were projected on a big screen behind us. He also had several huge assemblages on stage and he spoke to the audience about his relationship to the music.”

“George and I have become great friends these last five years and I was happy to complete the circle of inspiration: JAZZ (right arrow) ASSEMBLAGE (right arrow) JAZZ!”

The music is available on CD Baby, complete with samples of each tune. It definitely has the Helen Borgers Seal of Approval!

- See more at:

Independent label

Theo Saunders, piano; Henry Franklin, bass; Kendall Kay, drums; Louis Van Taylor, alto saxophone; Chuck Manning, tenor saxophone; George Bohannon, trombone; Special Guest: Sal Marquez, trumpet.

“Nuttiness” is a medley of Thelonius Monk songs strung together like black pearls. Saunders is obviously a lover of Monk’s music and technique. You can hear it in his piano excellence. In the opening cut on this production, he has assimilated Los Angeles community all-star jazz players to interpret “Nutty/Friday the 13th/Little Rootie Tootie/Hackensack/Misterioso/Let’s Cool One and Brilliant Corners” all composed by Monk and elucidated beautifully in one song. This entire compact disc is an arrangement mastery. Saunders’ has taken some of his jazz heroes and iconic jazz composers and combined their classic jazz masterpieces into magical medleys. Up next came Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” blended into Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father”. Saunders title’s this one, “Father Mercy’s Song”. George Bohannon’s trombone solo is memorable. Next comes “Also What” that mixes the Miles Davis compositions “So What” and “All Blues” together in a delicious stew of flavors with Sal Marquez spicing things up on trumpet as a special guest. Henry Franklin, (a master recording artist in his own right), opens this piece with his formidable bass expertise and an improve solo. When Saunders enters, he promptly sets the mood for this Miles Medley. I love Bohannon’s trombone on this interesting production. Kendall Kay is as tasty as ever, locking in the flavors and putting the pots on to boil with drum mastery. Taylor and Manning are two of my favorite reed players around this Southern California town. They each bring extraordinary energy and creative improvisation to these exquisite Saunders’ arrangements. I am particularly enthralled with how Saunders combined John Coltrane’s “Naima/Equinox” tunes to create his self-titled, “Naimanox.” 

Theo Saunders describes this recording project in his linear notes.
“I first met assemblage artist, George Herms, (NOTE: who designed his CD cover) in 2010 and we began collaborating (along with Bobby Bradford) on a performance piece that was staged for three nights in 2011 at the Redcat Theatre in Los Angeles. It was titled “The Artists Life”, a Jazz Opera, and included Bobby Bradford’s Motet (7 pieces) on stage as well as my sextet, which I called the Lesstet; (6 pieces !). George has been a jazz fan for most of his adult life and a number of his works are dedicated to some of his favorite musicians; Monk, Trane, Miles and the like. He inspired me to write some music assemblages that reflected his work. This recording is an expansion of those original arrangements. I call it “Jassemblage”. I’ve used many of the iconic jazz compositions from the last half century or so and assembled them in a way so that, not only do the melodies, harmonies and forms weave in and around each other, but the improvisations are based on a combination of the chord changes from each song, as well as the forms of each one.”

That being said, here is an album of great depth, unforgettable historic relevance, and a superb listening experience. Not only is Saunders proficient on the piano, he is a masterful arranger with fresh, creative ideas. Saunders and his sextet celebrate some of our true jazz giants, standing very tall on their own.

Theo Saunders: Jassemblage

Chuck Koton By CHUCK KOTON
June 18, 2016
Theo Saunders: Jassemblage Veteran Manhattan-born pianist, composer and arranger, Theo Saunders, has been a driven artist since his days at the High School For Performing Arts. In the ensuing decades, whether in NYC or California, his devotion to improvisational music has led him to stamp his personal vision on the music he plays, whether composing compelling original music or rearranging standards.

Six years ago, after a typically unfettered, emotionally searing performance at one of LA's great jazz hangs, the late Charlie O's of Van Nuys, Saunders made the acquaintance of a true jazz devotee and equally driven artistic spirit, one of the last of the Beatniks, world renowned assemblage artist, George Herms. That night was the start of a beautiful and productive friendship.

Herms, for decades a familiar face at LA jazz venues, eventually enlisted Saunders, (along with another one of SoCal's prodigious yet woefully under-appreciated, creative musical spirits, trumpeter Bobby Bradford, to collaborate on a multi-media performance, "The Artist's Life: A Jazz Opera," that debuted at Disney Hall's RedCat space in 2011. Appropriately, Saunders arranged a musical assemblage of several jazz classics to accompany Herms' performance. The evening's no holds barred, artistic and musical explorations were recorded and included as a DVD in Herms' retrospective publication, "The River Book" (Hamilton Press, 2014).

Fast forward several years and Saunders found himself inspired to continue his musical "assemblages" for his own recording project. On his self-produced CD, Jassemblage (TSM, 2015), Saunders reworked a number of classic jazz tunes so "that not only do the melodies, harmonies, and forms weave in and around each other, but the improvisations are based on a combination of the chord changes from each song." Having played these standards for many years, Saunders had a sense of the possibilities for some of these medleys, while on others, he instinctively discovered musical connections. Ultimately, Saunders hoped to capture in sound what Herms creates in his sculptural assemblages.

On the opening "jassemblage," Saunders displays the depth of his knowledge of, and passion for, the music of Thelonious Monk. He artfully weaves a multi-colored and multi-layered musical tapestry out of "Nutty," "Little Rootie Tootie," "Hackensack," and "Misterioso," to name a few, into a tune he calls "Nuttiness." Master Motor City trombonist, George Bohanon, blows a bouncy yet gentle solo, makin' that "bone" purr before closing with of a "quotation" from "Sonnymoon For Two." Then Saunders blasts off into the Monkian cosmos, followed by a bright and bluesy alto sax excursion by multi-reedist,Louis Van Taylor. The result is not only an homage to Monk, a seminal influence on Saunders' musical development, but a composition with the complexity of a Rube Goldberg contraption that never loses its swing.

On a jassemblage titled, "Rubistrophy," Saunders opens with high wire tension as drummer Kendall Kay lays down a sizzling layer of 16th notes, while the pianist paints a top coat with the classic vamp from "Epistrophy." Then veteran tenor saxophonist, Chuck Manning, counters with a cool breeze based on the "Ruby My Dear" melody.


On "Naimanox," a mash up of John Coltrane's "Naima" and "Equinox," Saunders employs Tyneresque power to drive the rhythm. Manning tears it up with a tenor solo that blasts off into interstellar space (an appropriate musical destination for someone whose day gig at JPL keeps his eyes trained on the heavenly bodies), while Henry "the Skipper" Franklin, a rhythmic anchor on the LA jazz scene for half a century, controls the groove on this "Trane" ride.

Growing up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Saunders developed a taste for the sabor of Latin jazz and pursued it from an early age. He indulges this spicy, aural craving with a musical "mofongo" stew called "Caramanteca." The three horn front line works especially well with music that features the Latin "tinge," as Jelly Roll Morton called it.

Saunders closes out the recording with a funky, booty shakin' medley of James Brown's "I Feel Good" and Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments" that Saunders titled, "I Steal Good Moments." Who else to feature on this tune but Louis Van Taylor, who, for decades, has blown a mean sax for such funksters as the Godfather himself, James Brown, and these days, Kool and the Gang.

Driven by the inspired interplay between the rhythm section and the soloists, Saunders manages to achieve a big band sound with his stellar sextet. And his re-arrangements, which seamlessly create complex harmonic conversations among the musicians, never lose a visceral connection to the groove.

Track Listing: Nuttiness; Father Mercy's Song; Also What; Naimanox; Caramanteca; Rubistrphy; Take Five Moans; I Steal Good Moments.

Personnel: Theo Saunders: piano; George Bohanon: trombone; Chuck Manning: tenor sax; Louis Van Taylor: alto sax; Henry Franklin: bass; Kendall Kay: drums; Special guest: Sal Marquez: trumpet, on “Also What.”

Theo Saunders And Intergeneration: When The Saints Go Out

Edward Blanco By EDWARD BLANCO
August 26, 2012
Theo Saunders and Intergeneration: When The Saints Go Out Southern California pianist Theo Saunders is a veteran musician/composer with an extensive resume as bandleader, sideman and musical director. The sparkling sophomore effort, When The Saints Go Out, documents the robust sounds of his Intergeneration group on this Arabesque label debut, a follow-up to Intergeneration (CDBaby, 2011). Originally from The Big Apple, Saunders has lived and performed in both New York and the west coast, where he has carved out a successful professional career. As leader of the Intergeneration sextet, whose members' ages span more than thirty years, he has maintained a presence performing in Santa Barbara, L.A. and throughout the Southern California jazz scene.

There's nothing fancy, showy or conceptual about When The Saints Go Out; the music is pure, straight-ahead jazz with the exception of the opening, New Orleans-style title track. Here, saxophonist Zane Musa Quartet (on soprano) and drummer Tony Austin supply the energy. Buoyed by a sizzling horn section that features two saxophones and trombonist David Dahlsten, the band provides plenty of power-packed moments. The terrific standard, "Old Devil Moon," is the first example of the group's high-octane side, featuring scorching solos from Musa on alto, Chuck Manning on tenor and Saunders' dazzling lines.

The band continues its swinging approach on Saunders' "Camouflage," not hiding a thing but, rather, revealing more of the group's ability to electrify a piece of music with its play. All is not on fire however, as Saunders and the band retreats to the softer side, performing a delicate dance on the beautifully balladic "Lynford's Lament" which, with mellow performances from Dahlsten and Saunders, emerges as one of the outstanding pieces of the set. The hard bop approach of drummer Art Blakey's legendary The Jazz Messengers left a positive impression on Saunders, and that influence is transferred on the up-tempo romp of "The Jazz Messenger" tribute piece.

Saunders and the ensemble slow it down one more time on the very humbling and cushy "For Miles, A Round," but decide to close the album, demonstrating their hard bop mettle, on a rousing rendition of Dave Brubeck's standard, "In Your Own Sweet Way." No question about this project, Saunders and Intergeneration provide a swinging, straight-ahead old school statement on When The Saints Go Out, an appealing, high quality disc that generations of jazz lovers will devour with gusto.

Track Listing: When The Saints Go Out; Old Devil Moon; Lynford's Lament; Camaouflage; Comes Love; The Jazz Messenger; For Miles, A Round; In Your Own Sweet Way.

Personnel: Theo Saunders: piano; Zane Musa: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone (1, 6); Chuck Manning: tenor saxophone; David Dahlsten: trombone; Jeff Littleton: bass; Tony Austin: drums.

Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: Arabesque Jazz | Style: Modern Jazz