Vocalist, Guitarist at Heart of Primary Colors

Andrew Gilbert Special to the San Jose Mercury News

The best jazz happens through an elaborate process of trial and error in which musicians explore various concepts while searching for an ideal blend of personalities and sounds. That was how guitarist Rick Vandivier and vocalist Nate Pruitt came to create Primary Colors, a flexible jazz combo that performs Saturday at BoAs Club Elite.

“We kind of experimented with different instrumentation, with two guitars or guitar and bass, or full rhythm section,” Vandivier says. “Not only did we find that most of those things worked; we liked the variety.”

The group coalesced in the early 1990s, when Pruitt and Vandivier were working with the spectacular electric bassist Benny Reitvelt. At first they performed under the name Threesome, but by the time they started recording at the Fantasy studio in Berkeley, they had adopted the name Primary Colors.

“The idea was that the core — guitar, bass and voice — could create the sounds and textures, grooves and arrangements that we wanted,” Vandivier says. “So when Benny went back on the road with Santana, Nate and I continued to be the core, joined by the other players we’ve been lucky to work with.”

On Saturday, they perform with gifted drummer Paul Van Wageningen and superb bassist John Wiitala, who played on half the tracks from the group’s first album, “We Know How It Feels.”

Pruitt will focus on songs from the latest Primary Colors disc, “Every Mother’s Son” (both on Avatar Productions), which gives a good indication of the soulful singer’s range.

“Every Mother’s Son” includes standards such as “Time After Time” and “Old Folks,” the Ray Charles soul classic “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” the spiritual “Deep River” and the blues tune “Further on Up the Road.”

Pruitt is always looking for new songs. “There are so many I would love to learn,” he says. “I’ve got a running list.” Lately he added “A Beautiful Friendship,” “Love Walked In” and “My Foolish Heart” to the Primary Colors repertoire.

While saxophonist Kristen Strom recently described Pruitt as a “true jazz treasure,” the vocalist isn’t one to blow his own horn. Carmen McRae was a mentor, and Pruitt was recruited by Quincy Jones to perform on the soundtrack of the Sidney Poitier film “The Lost Man,” but he hates dropping names.

Pruitt doesn’t hesitate to mention his older brother, however, the great bassist and French horn player Willie Ruff, who gained fame as a member of the acclaimed Mitchell/Ruff Duo, with pianist Dwike Mitchell. Over the years, Pruitt has performed occasionally with the duo, including a memorable gig at the W.C. Handy Festival with Dizzy Gillespie. A professor of music at Yale for the past 35 years, Ruff recently summoned his brother back to their hometown of New Haven, Conn., for a gig.

“He had me sing `Lush Life’ with him, which is such a beautiful song,” says Pruitt, 64. “But the lyrics are so depressing. My brother insisted I do it. It came out really nice, but I have a hard time dealing with the words.”

Both men were born in Sheffield, Ala., but Pruitt grew up in New Haven as part of a musical family vividly portrayed in Ruff’s 1991 autobiography, “A Call to Assembly” (Viking). After the death in 1945 of their loving, strong-willed mother, Manie Broaden, Ruff helped hold the family together, running a popular New Haven jazz spot called the Playback. Their musical paths haven’t always run parallel, however, as Ruff took a dim view of Pruitt’s early vocal efforts on the thriving New Haven doo-wop scene.

“My brother used to pick on me when I sang doo-wop; now he hires me,” Pruitt says with a laugh. “I would be practicing in my room. He’d open the door with a bottle of milk of magnesia: `You got a problem?’ He was terrible. If it wasn’t for Dwike Mitchell, I wouldn’t be singing. He really encouraged me, and that was enough for me to keep it up.”

Pruitt has made a point of supporting young musicians ever since. He has taught vocals at Gavilan College in Gilroy since the early 1990s and has done dozens of middle-school performances as part of the San Jose Jazz Society’s education program. His accomplishments as a performer and educator made Pruitt a natural pick for the Jazz Society’s 2004 Lifetime Achievement Award. Though pleased with the tribute, he didn’t want anyone to get the notion he was ready to rest on his laurels. “I’m not done,” Pruitt says.

The Jazz Society isn’t encouraging Pruitt to slip into retirement, either, as Primary Colors is booked for a March 5 show in the Sunday concert series, being held this season at the Improv Comedy Club. He and Vandivier will be joined by bassist Seward McCain, drummer Andy Eberhard and saxophonist Bob Johnson.

“That should be a fun gig,” Pruitt says. “Rick, Bob and myself have been in groups for more than 25 years, since our days in pianist Ed Manning’s Little Night Music band. Through the years, we’ve always managed to keep something going.”

Originally published: January 13, 2006