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The Kenji Wagner Quintet takes us to the jazz clubhouse

A trumpeter plays inside a red room, a saxophonist just out of frame plays in front.
Parker Miles Blohm
Trumpeter Kenji Wagner performing in the KNKX Seattle studios.

Asked about learning jazz in the red-hot Northwest scene, Interlake High School junior Kenji Wagner told us the best part is sharing jazz with the community of teenage musicians he encounters.

A quick study of his band shows that this community has broken past the limits of the classroom. Saxophonist Aiden Sieman is a senior at Garfield High, drummer Kevin Murphy is a senior at Skyline. The other players include a wonderfully skilled pair of high school graduates, pianist George Fremont out of Skyline and Jake Escobar, a recent Bellevue High graduate. 

The talented young "Prince of Brass" is primarily a trombone player, but picked up his trumpet for two of the three songs his quintet performed in the KNKX studios. Most impressive, though, was the band's fresh arrangements of old gems.

Beginning with McCoy Tyner's tricky "Blues On the Corner," Wagner's trombone showed a growing command of the instrument, and more than a few hints of the personal style he's developing.

A clever arrangement of the Carpenters' pop hit "Close To You" followed, with each player watching and listening closely to their bandmates to stay together through the difficult, slow tempo. This cheesy old hit has rarely sounded so interesting.

Finally, the rhythm section tossed in some "Coltrane changes" underneath the Gershwin standard "But Not For Me," with a confidence that's uncommon in players this age.

Talking with the band after the session, there was excited talk of music new and old, and discussions of each player's next step on the unending path of musical development.

These students aren't alone in their luck finding themselves here in the Pacific Northwest. We were thrilled to get this peek into the teenage jazz community, and these players continue to promise great things for the future of this music.

Abe grew up in Western Washington, a third generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.