Earl V. Belcher Jr. gently bobbed his tenor saxophone and finished a John Coltrane classic. He nodded to polite applause.
“Thank you,” he said to jazz fans at Savannah’s in downtown Albany — now known as The Dublin Underground. “That was ‘Impressions.’ That warmed us up after that long intermission.”
The tall, trim Belcher always seems warmed up, loose, ready for music or conversation. On a recent Friday night at the South Pearl Street nightclub, he wore a black T-shirt that showed sax man Dexter Gordon in full swing; black slacks; and a brown fedora. The stage was full of shadows for Belcher and his outfit, the New York Jazz Trio; spotlights and cobalt blue lights on side walls supplied appropriate and ambient glow.
With mood in place, Belcher and company — marriage and musical partner Sarah Lewis Belcher plays acoustic bass and Steve Partyka is on drums — made smooth moves into compositions by Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and other stars from brass and woodwind worlds.
On the court
Belcher used to make smooth moves of another sort. From 1977 through 1981, he was a high-scoring forward for St. Bonaventure University’s basketball team. He helped the team to 70 wins, paced the Atlantic 10 conference in scoring for two consecutive seasons and helped the Bonnies make both the NCAA and NIT tournament fields during his career. He’s second on the Allegany (N.Y.) university’s all-time scoring list.
While millions of people across the nation will watch “March Madness” college basketball games this Friday night, Belcher will be back on Savannah’s stage for a Cd-DVD release party. Earl the shooting forward is happily retired; Earl the jazz saxophonist is anxious to score in jazz circles. He hopes people who once saw him play will now come out to hear him play.
The vocation is not a new idea.
“I was always around a lot of music,” said Belcher, 50, who lives in Albany near Washington Park. “I just didn’t have the time to dedicate what it takes to be a good musician.”
It didn’t look like he was going to have time after graduating from St. Bonaventure in 1981. He was drafted by the National Basketball Association’s San Antonio Spurs, but shattered his right ankle during the exhibition season. The injury ended his pro career.
Belcher had always liked jazz, but first preferred the smooth contemporary style. A listen to Coltrane’s well-regarded 1959 “Giant Steps” album put him on the bebop path. He’s been playing the sax professionally since 1993 and played in four jazz groups in Syracuse. He was raised in the Central New York city, excelling in basketball, tennis and golf at Christian Brothers Academy.
Once basketball was out of his system, music moved back in. Belcher formed the New York Jazz Trio and earned regular gigs at Schenectady’s Van Dyck Restaurant in 2003. Belcher considered playing the former jazz club an honor — hundreds of famous musicians had been on the restaurant’s stage first.“For us, just being on the bandstand and knowing those people had played there was really enough,” he said. “And then to get paid was just fantastic. We were the last group that played at the Van Dyck before it closed, we ran the Tuesday night jam session in there.”
The trio began monthly appearances at Savannah’s earlier this year. Belcher loves the three-person lineup.
“From a musician’s standpoint, I kind of grew up in the old-school ways,” he said. “When you’re sitting in with a lot of bands, a lot of individuals have the right to tell what to play, how long to play and so on. I made a promise to myself that the first time I got a group, I would allow the musicians in my group to play as long or as short as they like. And you can only really do that in a trio format and still be honest with the bebop music. If you really kind of listen, a lot of times, at least with bebop, the piano kind of sits out anyway.”
In the trio’s February show at Savannah’s, Lewis and Partyka both received time in the limelight. Because the saxophone is the big voice in all the compositions, Belcher’s lead tells most of the stories.
“As much as I love Coltrane,” Belcher said, “I really sound more similar to Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, a deeper type of sound. I do play the soprano, but I have worked to emulate the father of the tenor saxophone, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster, a bigger sound.”
Belcher does most of the talking between pieces, too. That’s fine with Sarah, a 1982 graduate of Scotia-Glenville High School and an Albany attorney. She also played college basketball, at Middlebury College in Vermont.
“I’m kind of reserved,” she said. “The saxophone wouldn’t be the best instrument for me because I’m not really that outgoing.”
She’s happy behind her tall strings, which she’s been playing since 1997. “I like the tone, it kind of holds down the tune,” she said. “It provides the beat everybody plays upon.”
Drummer Partyka, who lives in Cohoes, likes playing with a husband and wife team. He said there are never any communication problems.
“Once we’re on the bandstand, it doesn’t make a difference,” he said. “Everybody communicates, like all good musicians should.”
Belcher enjoys communicating with Albany jazz fans. He said enthusiastic audiences are ready for bebop and other jazz styles in the Capital Region.
“When you compare it to New York City, it’s not on that scale, but anytime during the week if you walk into Justin’s without reservations, you couldn’t even see a performance,” he said.
“At the Dublin Underground, we’re the jazz group that plays once a month and we normally get 30 to 40 people . . . a lot of people think there’s not a big audience here, but there really is.”
Belcher is trying to improve his trio’s musical game.
“We’re trying to break into the elite place, Justin’s,” he said, of the Lark Street gathering place for jazz lovers, “and get the opportunity to play along with some of the elite performers in the area like Brian Patneaude, Adrian Cohen, Joe Barna, Keith Pray, Lee Shaw, Yuko Kishimoto. Those are some of the elite musicians in the area and they all play at Justin’s. We’re just trying to get better.”
For now, the trio is a part-time project. Belcher is recruiting census takers for the U.S. government, and Sarah and Partyka have their daytime engagements. He tries to practice three hours a day, and would gladly accept music as a full-time career.
If the trio takes off, things could change.
“That really couldn’t happen with the same group I have, because my wife is a partner in her law firm and Steve works for his father-in-law,” Belcher said. “It’s something that you dream about, but realistically, if that thing kind of happened, I would probably have to recruit two additional individuals. I would do it, but I know my wife and Steve, because of their work schedules, really couldn’t do it.”
Local performances are good enough right now. Belcher is happy to be recognized as a saxophone player, and occasionally as a former college basketball star.
“Here in Albany, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of people and the first question they ask after hearing me play is, ‘Oh, you’re tall. Did you play basketball?’ ” Belcher said. “And when I tell them, they say, ‘I think I saw you play against Syracuse.’
“Sometimes, when you say the name, that doesn’t ring a bell. But when you say the school, they put the school with the name, it’s ‘Yeah, I remember seeing you,’ ” he continued.
“If they’re basketball fans, at least in the Northeast, as soon as you say St. Bonaventure and my name, it kind of clicks back to them.
“And it gives me a little advantage, because it gets you through the door. A lot of people are basketball enthusiasts.”