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JAZZ NOTES

She's an artist of rare talent

Jane Bunnett has a knack for defying expectations.

For one thing, female jazz saxophonists are rare. Yet, this month Bunnett was voted the fifth-best soprano sax player in Down Beat magazine's 52d annual critics' poll. Bunnett also ranked sixth on flute and was voted No. 1 "Rising Star" flutist.

Those honors, though, are small potatoes compared with Bunnett, a Canadian, receiving back-to-back Grammy nominations for best Latin jazz album (the CDs "Alma de Santiago" and "Cuban Odyssey"). Bunnett's latest, "Red Dragonfly (Aka Tombo)," out last month, pushes beyond the Afro-Cuban influences of those two discs to points as far away as South Africa and Japan. But it also has a sense of home, with instrumental arrangements of three songs she had sung in the choir while growing up in Toronto.

Bunnett, who brings her sextet, the Spirits of Havana, to Scullers Wednesday, found the first of those Grammy bids a bit disconcerting at first. "When we got called for `Alma de Santiago,' I was really shocked," she says by phone from Chicago. "I thought, `What a fluke.' And a record made in Santiago [Cuba], by a Canadian -- I just thought it was unbelievable. And then `Cuban Odyssey' got nominated last year. It was like, `Wow, so maybe it's not a fluke.' "

Bunnett, 48, started her career intending to play classical piano. But a bad case of tendinitis nixed that idea, and while visiting San Francisco (her doctor in Toronto suggested she get far away from her piano for a while), she found her inspiration watching the mid-1970s quintet of the great bassist-composer Charles Mingus at the Keystone Korner.

"I couldn't have heard a more explosive, powerful group," she says. "When I came back from that trip, a lot of things hit me. Number one, I wanted to play jazz. I started to think if I had all these [physical] problems, maybe it was classical piano" causing them.

She returned to Toronto and over the next decade took up flute and alto and soprano sax. She also met and married her trumpeter/producer/co-band leader, Larry Cramer, and began making regular 15-hour pilgrimages by bus to New York to study bebop with pianist Barry Harris and drop in on the city's thriving loft-scene jam sessions. She cut her first three albums in the late 1980s, all featuring the pianist she'd seen with Mingus years earlier in San Francisco, Don Pullen.

Tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, whom Bunnett buttonholed after watching him in a duet performance with bassist Charlie Haden in Toronto, also appeared on that first album, "In Dew Time" (named for a Cramer composition in Redman's honor), and played on Bunnett's 2002 disc "Spirituals and Dedications" as well. "She's one of the finest musicians I've ever met," Redman says. "Jane's a fine artist -- arranging, writing, and playing, especially on soprano and flute. She's a complete musician."

By 1991, Bunnett decided she wanted to take a break and spend some time refining her soprano sax technique. She received a grant to go to Paris and study soprano with Steve Lacy. "He's really the reason I picked up the soprano sax," she says. "God, his sound was just so beautiful. And it's just one of those things -- you go see `Swan Lake' or something, and you see the swan up there and say, `I want to do that.' I just heard that sound, and I was just, `I want to play that.' "

Bunnett and Cramer wound up based in Paris for four years. But they also made frequent trips home to Toronto and to Cuba, where they began traveling professionally a couple of times a year after vacationing there in 1982. Their first CD with Cuban musicians, "Spirits of Havana," came out in 1991 and featured such standouts as Merceditas Valdés, Guillermo Barreto, and Gonzálo Rubalcaba. Seven more Cuban CDs have followed. Bunnett and Cramer still make regular trips to the island, delivering musical instruments that have been donated to the nation's conservatories.

They also continue to come across some excellent musicians from there. Most notably, there is piano phenomenon David Virelles, 20, who performed on "Alma de Santiago" at 15 and contributed arrangements for four of the songs on "Red Dragonfly."

"He's remarkable," Bunnett says of Virelles. Some would say the same about her.

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