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It's better late for guitarist John Stein

It's fair to say that jazz guitarist John Stein is a late bloomer, but that would be missing the point.

True, he didn't get around to studying jazz seriously until he was 30, when he began undergraduate studies at Berklee College of Music. And he didn't begin putting out CDs under his own name until a decade ago.

But since then he's been prolific. This summer Stein, now an assistant professor in Berklee's harmony department, plans to head to Brazil to record his sixth album. In the meantime, he will celebrate another milestone this Wednesday. Stein, now in his mid-50s, will make his debut as leader of his own band at Scullers with saxophonist David ''Fathead" Newman, organist Bruce Katz, and drummer Yoron Israel.

While he may have gotten a late start, Stein continues to evolve.

''I still feel like a student," he says. ''In fact, if I could do anything I wanted to [on guitar], I'm not sure I'd still be interested."

Stein began guitar lessons with the folk-oriented Charlene Kunitz at age 7 in Kansas City, Mo. His first jazz lessons came at 13, when he studied briefly with local standout Don Winsell. But by the time he entered Beloit College in Wisconsin in 1967, he wasn't studying guitar at all. Or much of anything else, for that matter. Stein dropped out of Beloit and followed a girl--friend to Vermont, where he spent most of the next decade mulling what he wanted to do with his life.

''I guess I always picked up the guitar when I got confused about other things I was doing," he muses, seated in his Berklee office in blue jeans and a dark-red patterned shirt.

Stein supported himself by playing rock and country-rock in clubs around Vermont, but he grew bored with those simpler genres and wound up taking jazz lessons from a pianist who'd spent some time studying at Berklee. The pianist had a weekly gig playing at a Brattleboro restaurant, the Mole's Eye Cafe.

''It became my ambition to get good enough to play with him at the Mole's Eye," says Stein.

Stein finally did, but soon exhausted what he could learn about jazz in southern Vermont. He came to Berklee for his degree; he was hired by the school immediately after graduation.

His career as a guitarist and composer grew slowly. There was even a point at which he set the guitar aside altogether while he earned a master's degree in education at Harvard and flirted with switching to orchestration. Eventually, he says: ''Something snapped in me and I thought, 'This really isn't me.' "

Once again it was time to pick up the guitar. His first CD, ''Hustle Up!," came out in 1995. But it was his second, ''Green Street," that captured attention, in large part owing to the presence of Newman. The two joined forces again on Stein's fourth CD, ''Conversation Pieces."

''I think John is a fine guitarist," says Newman, whose tribute to his longtime employer Ray Charles, ''I Remember Brother Ray," has been getting heavy radio airplay. ''He has an original approach to his playing, and his compositions are quite good."

Stein's most recent disc, last year's ''Interplay," broke his habit of recording mostly his own tunes. But it shows off the success he's had merging qualities from his two primary guitar heroes, Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery, into a quietly melodic, harmonically sophisticated voice of his own.

Stein is not finished learning, though. He has begun studying upright bass and now plays it weekly at Sunday afternoon jam sessions at Jamaicaway Books & Gifts in Jamaica Plain.

Then there's that recording date he's got planned for São Paulo. The idea was planted during a previous tour of Brazil, on which Stein was reminded of a favorite record from his boyhood, the famed 1964 collaboration of Stan Getz and João Gilberto, ''Getz/Gilberto." Stein hadn't realized how much that record had affected him until he went to Brazil.

''I'm standing up in front of these students at a music studio," he recalls, ''and they started asking me what my interest in Brazilian music was. Why was I in Brazil? I said to myself, 'Oh my God -- this is the reason why.' "

''What a record," Stein continues. ''Maybe the best record in the world. Stan Getz -- every note he plays is perfect. And who's playing piano? [Antonio Carlos] Jobim, the guy who wrote all the tunes. And João Gilberto is the perfect singer for that kind of music and that kind of guitar playing. He taught everybody else how to play guitar in that style."

There are hints of Gilberto in the tranquil melodicism of Stein's own playing, especially on ''Interplay." That influence, presumably, will become more evident when he records this summer.

''The amazing thing about music, no matter how much you've learned, there's more to learn," Stein says.

''People who feel like they've gotten as far as they want should stop playing."

Surprise party: When we bumped into pianist and longtime New England Conservatory professor Ran Blake at Harvard's tribute to Hank Jones on Sunday, we asked about the 70th birthday salute NEC's got planned for him. He said that he wasn't supposed to know about it, and scurried away. The secrecy was a surprise, given that the event is listed for all to see on NEC's events calendar. But far be it from us to give away anymore of what's in store, beyond noting that an assortment of musicians and students are lining up to pay tribute, and that the free concert will take place at 8 p.m. Monday at NEC's Jordan Hall.

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