In a corner of the patio of The Bluffs Restaurant on Farmington’s East Main Street, Jeff Solon finishes adjusting his saxophone strap. Beside him, another musician curls his right hand around an electric guitar’s fret board.
The early crowd gathered at small wooden tables grows silent, setting down glasses glowing red with wine. Leaning from under umbrellas that shade them, women in bright backless dresses and men in short-sleeved shirts ignore the brilliant golden heat of the late afternoon sun.
They watch the two musicians. Both stand in the intense light, still as subjects in a Rembrandt painting. Then together they move, almost imperceptibly. Guitar and sax sing to life. The first notes of “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” soar above the adobe wall that surrounds the patio. It’s five o’clock on a Thursday night in summer. For the next four hours, the Jeff Solon Duo will entertain people who desire a glass of wine, and patrons who come to The Bluffs to enjoy steak, seafood, and local atmosphere. Many Four Corners jazz-lovers know Solon, both as a soloist, and as an organizer of duos, trios, quartets, and a 1940s Big Band.
A 30-year resident of Durango, he performs from Farmington to Telluride. This summer, he’s appearing at The Bluffs for the second time.
“We built the patio last year,” says the restaurant’s manager, Ivy Ledbetter, elegant in gold cocktail blouse and black skirt. “We started doing music just to (let) people have someplace to (be) outside. We do wine tastings, and we have a big crowd from Durango and Farmington.”
So every Thursday at The Bluffs, from now to Labor Day, (with a couple of Fridays thrown in) Solon creates the Jeff Solon Duo with someone — tonight, guitarist Kevin McCarthy. Their first set offers lively renditions, ranging from ’40s Swing and ’50s Standards to Cool. In consideration of their audience, they present mostly mellow tunes.
But Solon admits they sometimes get “wild and crazy,” working in a little bebop. McCarthy describes their music in one word: “improvisational.”
Then grinning, he elaborates.
“We follow a form but we take it out. We listen to each other and just keep playing and try to stay faithful to the music.”
Together since the early 1990s, they don’t talk about what they do on stage, but Solon says they’ve developed a rapport to the point where playing is spontaneous and intuitive.
McCarthy laughs. “You start to read each other’s mind after a while.”
Looking at the two of them, it’s easy to believe that. When performing at The Bluffs, they wear casual clothes that fit comfortably on their slender frames. Both are of medium height. Each speaks softly. With a straight face, Solon will insist he no longer remembers where he came from before he arrived in Durango. McCarthy asserts he is not sane to play jazz for a living in today’s economy.
Both are self-taught musicians. McCarthy picked up the bass and guitar in garage bands. Appearing in his first talent show in third grade, he worked out most of the Beatles’ tunes “before (the group) came to this country.” Thereafter, he mastered “harder rock” — Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.
Then he discovered jazz, which he found a “complete enlightenment.” It got all his fingers moving on his guitar. “I became aware of playing over chord changes, and that opened a whole new world.”
Solon grew up in the ’60s folk era on bluegrass harmonica. A jazz lover since he was a kid, he graduated to flute, sax, and clarinet.
He believes jazz constantly evolves.
“The beauty is, you can’t ever figure it out. You can’t ever get to the end.”
So, as the sky turns from brilliant turquoise to azure over The Bluffs Restaurant, Solon and McCarthy suggest tempos and arrangements to each other with subtle nods. Occasionally, one proposes the next song, but usually, they just know what they want to do.
“At this stage, I’ve got a lot of years into it,” muses Solon. “You just want to create music.”
But as long as he’s been playing, he still puts in the practice to keep it up. Most of his days disappear amid rehearsals. He also composes. McCarthy spends time on two things in his studio: guitar and bass, and sculpting in bronze. He finds the visual arts and music work hand in hand.
“Very often when I’m playing my instrument, I’m looking over at one of my sculptures, figuring it out — without even knowing I’m doing that.“
Tonight, he and Solon start wailin’. The crowd lingers over dinner, handling cutlery and china as quietly as possible.
Above, the sun drops to the horizon. The heavens change from azure to navy. Shortly, the moon will glisten in blackness. The day, once hot enough to blacken a catfish, will dissolve into almost zesty coolness.
But people will hardly notice. Every ear will focus on the Jeff Solon Duo until 9 p.m., when the glorious Thursday evening in the summer concludes on the patio.
The Bluffs Restaurant is at 3450 E. Main. For information, call 505-325- 8155.