Dec. 29 2010 12:00 AM

Guitarist bounces into Creole Gallery with ‘little tiny big band’


The combination of acoustic bass, guitar, and trombone is rare in jazz, to be sure, but guitarist Randy Napoleon made it sound like a newly discovered page of the Kama Sutra.

Without a piano and drums on chaperone duty, anything goes.

“You can have the trombone and guitar playing little unison lines quietly, on top of the bass,” he said. “Or you can have trombone and bass playing harmony underneath the guitar.”

“Of course, you can have the bass swinging full throttle and have the guitar comping for the trombone player. Or we can all play three different lines.”

Napoleon, a hard-swinging guitarist who drops sweet chords like Julia Child used butter, sold the Creole out four years ago. He returns Sunday with his newest project, which he calls a “little tiny big band.”

There’s a waterbed-like fluidity in the collaboration between Napoleon and trombonist Josh Brown, who played together for years with pop heartthrob Michael Buble. (At Sunday’s Creole gig, Ann Arbor bassist Paul Keller rounds out the trio.)

Brown and Napoleon began hanging out and playing together on the side while touring with Buble.

The duo’s breakout recalls the 1950 Hollywood melodrama “Young Man With a Horn,” in which a hot-headed trumpeter chafes under his bandleader’s predictable, cornball arrangements. As soon as the bandleader’s back is turned, he calls an impromptu jam session with his buddies and swings like mad.

“That was certainly my feeling,” Napoleon said, with a laugh. “I wanted to do other things.” (He declined to speak for Brown, who is still with Buble.)

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Michael,” Napoleon explained. “I learned a lot from him about how to connect with an audience, but as far as a place where I could express myself — it wasn’t a real good place for me.”

Napoleon said his current gig, with singer-pianist Freddy Cole (brother of Nat King Cole), is a much better fit.

“He lets me stretch out and explore, so the last three and a half years have been wonderful.”

Napoleon was born in Brooklyn, studied music at the University of Michigan and lives in New York, where he juggles various combos like other people change outfits. Besides touring with Cole, he leads a sextet with organ and three horns, which he described as an “in your face, rock-out big band.”

The guitar-trombone-bass combo is something completely different. Without drums and piano hammering around him, Napoleon can design and build musical space in his own sweet way.

“I like to have a group that brings the listener in, is very acoustic,” he said. “It’s a chance for me to play a lot of chords, really influence the harmonic and rhythmic direction.”

It’s a delicate proposition, but Napoleon has found the perfect partner in Brown. While both men are top musicians, neither shows off. Their constantly calibrated give and take exudes confidence, but never slips into autopilot.

“Josh makes the time dance and jump,” Napoleon said. “It feels great every time he picks up the horn. Everyone’s got to carry the groove in a group like this; otherwise it’s going to sound like a cocktail band.”

Napoleon warmly recalled his 2006 gig at the Creole, in the heyday of promoter Meegan Holland and Creole owner Robert Busby, who was killed in 2007. Holland returned vigorously to promoting concerts at the Creole in the 2010-11 season.

“I’m so glad Meegan is back there doing things,” he said. “I play maybe 200 dates every year in different venues, but that one really stuck in my mind. They brought us upstairs, cooked us some food. It was really loving and homey, and the audience was fantastic.”

Randy Napoleon Trio

p.m. Sunday, Jan. 2 Creole Gallery, 1218 Turner St., Lansing. $23.
Tickets available at Elderly Instruments, Archives Book Shop and