April 18 2006 12:00 AM
Courtesy Davi Napoleon Napoleonic times: Jazz guitarist Randy Napoleon, at the Creole Gallery Friday, has a classic sound reminiscent of Wes Montgomery.

Napoleon has beaten long odds. He's been a professional jazz guitarist since he was 18, most recently hitting the Leno-and-Letterman circuit with crooner Michael Buble.

“I've always made the rent, although I've come close a few times,” he says.

Napoleon is backing Buble at the Fox in Detroit for a concert, and visiting family and friends in Ann Arbor. His Creole date is a fortunate one-off with a supporting cast of Michigan jazz luminaries. Together, they'll jam all evening in the melodic post-bop style Napoleon loves. “I'm really looking forward to stretching out,” he says.

{mosimage)The quintet Friday is a rare configuration featuring tenor sax and trumpet, so look for plenty of interplay among the musicians. “I'm busy arranging my stuff for a bigger group,” Napoleon says. “I don't often get to lead a horn section.” Generally, jazz guitarists play in a trio or accompany a solo artist as part of a rhythm section.

As a composer, Napoleon leans toward pensive rumination; his tunes have titles like “Enjoy the Moment” and “To Have, to Lose.” As an instrumentalist, Napoleon's sound can be likened to the classic elegance of jazz great Wes Montgomery. Each note hangs, suspended with raindrop clarity from its bough of melody, on up-tempo tunes as well as ballads.

Napoleon says he was turned on to the guitar by rock gods Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. He fell in love with jazz guitar at 13, after Ben Jansson (his saxophonist Friday) exposed him to jazz greats like Miles Davis and Montgomery.

Napoleon's band experiences began in Ann Arbor, when Pioneer High School's jazz band was led by the inspiring trumpeter Louis Smith. “Louis is the greatest,” Napoleon says. Napoleon also played in Ellen Rowe's U-M big band while studying at the school of music there.

Friday's gig is like old home week for Napoleon, as he's known all his colleagues (Jansson, Paul Keller on bass and Sean Dobbins on drums) at least since high school. “I've known Ben since I was 2 years old,” Napoleon says.

The lone exception is trumpeter Rob Smith of Central Michigan University, with whom Napoleon has never played before. That makes Smith the wild card Friday night, but the new face doesn't faze Napoleon. “That's what jazz is all about,” he says.

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