Main Shading of Primary Colors Is The Blues

Andrew Gilbert San Jose Mercury News:

The name Primary Colors hints at the vivid musical hues generated by vocalist Nate Pruitt and guitarist Rick Vandivier, but not all shades are equal in their musical pallet.

The truth is that more than any other tone, it’s the blues that predominates, coloring almost every piece in their repertoire, from American Songbook standards and Brazilian numbers to jazz tunes, soul songs and R&B classics. The group, which is Pruitt and Vandivier’s main musical commitment, usually performs as a quintet, featuring a revolving cast of top flight Bay Area musicians.

Primary Colors plays the Hyatt’s Palm Room as part of the San Jose Jazz Society’s Sunday afternoon concert series, and holds forth at Jazz At Pearl’s in North Beach next weekend, Jan. 30-31. For the San Jose gig the band features saxophonist Bob Johnson on tenor and soprano, bassist Seward McCain and drummer Andy Eberhard. And for the Pearl’s performances, Michael Zisman and Paul Van Wageningen hold down the bass and drum chairs, respectively.

The band’s eclectic book has developed over the years through trial and error, Vandivier says, so that “the things we end up performing have been the result of trying almost anything and then distilling it down to what will work the best. There are a lot of blues that Nate has known for a long time and are part of him. And when I started playing guitar it was with an emphasis on blues and rock, even before I got into jazz, so that really resonates with me too. That bluesy element has become part of the way we play, even when we’re not playing blues.”

Pruitt, who lives in Morgan Hill, and the Palo Alto-based Vandivier have performed together as Primary Colors for about a decade, though they’ve shared bandstands in various ensembles since 1980. They gained considerable attention in the 1980s in A Little Night Music, a popular, long-running South Bay sextet led by keyboardist Ed Manning that recorded two albums, appeared at international jazz festivals and performed regularly at the Monterey Whaling Company in Mountain View.

At the same time they were members of Night Music, Pruitt and Vandivier starting working as a duo, which cemented their powerful musical connection. They experimented with different instrumental lineups, including a group called Threesome that featured monster bassist Benny Reitveld, best known for his work with Santana and Miles Davis. By 1994, they had settled on the name Primary Colors, and recorded the bulk of the tracks featured on the band’s 1999 debut “We Know How It Feels” (Avatar Productions).

The group quickly became the perfect vehicle for showcasing Pruitt’s astonishing versatility. With his smooth, rich baritone, he is one of the finest, albeit underappreciated male jazz singers on the scene, a vocalist with seemingly infinite emotional resources who can improvise horn-like scat lines, croon with soulful conviction and deliver a blues with total authority. The group’s second album, last year’s superb “Every Mother’s Son” (Avatar Productions), captures a good deal of Pruitt’s range, from his sensitive treatment of the Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn gem “Time After Time” to his hilarious version of Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Signifyin’ Monkey.”

Born in Sheffield Ala., Pruitt hails from a musical family that was memorably described in “A Call To Assembly,” the enthralling memoir of his older brother Willie Ruff, a superlative bassist who doubles on French horn and was part of the celebrated Mitchell/Ruff Duo. Published in 1991, the autobiography paints a loving portrait of their mother Manie Broaden, a resilient woman who instilled in her eight children an abiding respect of education and a sense of self-worth strong enough for them to thrive in the face of Alabama’s brutal Jim Crow system. After her death in 1945, the older siblings held the family together and they eventually relocated to Connecticut.

After performing in a doo-wop group around New Haven, Pruitt studied at Berklee College of Music, a school he discovered through a tip from Aretha Franklin when the future queen of soul was performing at his family’s nightclub The Playback. While living in Boston he worked in a band featuring guitarist John Abercrombie, a fellow Berklee student. A later stint with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra was cut short when he was drafted into the Army in 1966, and he ended up performing around Europe with an Army chorus, playing side gigs with guitarist Phil Upchurch and the rest of the chorus’s rhythm section.

After mustering out of the military, he moved to Los Angeles at the urging of his brother Willie Ruff, who was in the midst of a successful career as a studio musician. It wasn’t long before Pruitt started attracting the right kind of attention. Quincy Jones heard him performing with the Mitchell/Ruff Duo at the popular Hollywood jazz club Donte’s and was so impressed he hired him to sing on the soundtrack of the 1969 Sidney Poitier film “The Lost Man.”

The LA scene didn’t agree with him, however and by 1970 he and his wife had moved to the Bay Area, settling in Morgan Hill a few years later. Considering his immense musical talent, Pruitt has kept a fairly low profile, preferring to work in bands rather than putting his name out front as a leader. Besides Primary Colors, he has also worked widely and recorded two albums in recent years with Steve Czarnecki’s Soul Jazz Quintet.

“I really feel blessed to have found such great musicians to work with,” says Pruitt, 62, from the 13-acre property where he and his wife raised their three children. “Especially to have gotten to know Rick and developed such a great musical connection. We work off each other so well. It’s just magic.”

Vandivier was born and raised in Lima, Ohio, a small industrial city that was the hometown of the late tenor sax great Joe Henderson. Vandivier also studied at Berklee, where he was among Pat Metheny’s first students. He moved out to the Bay Area in 1979, and first met Pruitt when they were both sitting in at a Tuesday night jam session at Garden City. A superb jazz player with a soft, silky tone, Vandivier has developed a reputation as a consummate sideman. He’s recorded frequently with artists such as singer Raquel Bitton, flutist Nika Retjo and fellow guitarist Ed Johnson. But it’s with Pruitt and Primary Colors that he feels he’s at his most creative.

“The band’s chemistry seems to bring out the best in me,” Vandivier says. “The music is very spirited, a little bit wild, kind of ecstatic and sexy. It can morph into a real soulful ballad, or go to a Cole Porter type tune or something really funky, because Nate is so free, and we kind of feed on each other’s energy.”

Originally published: January 23, 2004