Keith Oxman is not an easy guy to track down -- at least not during the day.
The 41-year-old saxophonist, composer and music teacher is busy most days driving around to four local schools, where he teaches band to fifth- and sixth-graders.
"It's pretty busy, but it's a real nice thing to be involved in," said Oxman, a tall, soft-spoken man with angular features and a well- sculpted mustache. "It's certainly an important endeavor. The world probably doesn't need another sax player, but music teachers are needed."
Though Oxman's teaching routine doesn't have any particular influence on his own compositions, or sax playing, his recently released CD, Hard Times (Capri Records), does contain a nod to the old day job. (Oxman officially releases Hard Times at a concert this weekend.)
That nod is a tune called "Jack Rabbit," which he wrote for a class of sixth-grade band students so that they could experiment with close harmony and try to tackle other technical challenges.
But because the tune's quick runs and fast chord changes are also interesting enough for older audiences, he let the sextet of pros he assembled for Hard Times have a crack at "Jack Rabbit."
"I just thought, 'heck, we could do this,' " he says of the tune. "I changed a bit on the bridge section, but it's basically the same piece."
This past week, Oxman took 150 students from four different classes up to Denver to record "Jack Rabbit" and other tunes for a limited edition CD pressing. It's an annual educational experience that Oxman organizes for the students, who pay for the trip by buying the CDs up front.
"Jack Rabbit" is only one of many songs the kids recorded, and it's one of five original compositions that Oxman wrote for Hard Times, his fourth CD. With each successive CD, Oxman has written more tunes, increasing the complexity and testing his own limits as he goes.
"For me, writing is a major struggle," he said. "I've just recently begun to enjoy the process. I am getting better, but it's a real hard thing ... I just agonize over everything."
Take the tune, "Tzipora," in which Oxman experiments with very close harmonies (chords in which the notes are only a half-step or whole step away from each other on the major scale). "Oh man that took me forever," he says of writing "Tzipora," a tune titled after his mother's Hebrew name, which means bird.
"I was experimenting with different voices, but the form is also very odd," he said of "Tzipora," noting that instead of the usual 12 measure passage, the sections vary from 13 to 14 to 20 bars. For non-musicians, that just means that the structure and order of the song is less predictable.
"I was listening to a lot of Booker Little and other great players from the past who were using these voicings," he continued, "and I wanted to get at something that had a bit more modern approach ... with more tension in the lower voices."
Oxman succeeds. The close harmonies do create tension, but they're not hard on the ear, and Oxman resolves the unusual harmonies into gliding passages of more traditional minor and major chords. Tzipora paints a colorful portrait that could well describe a bird: soaring grooves punctuated by flamboyant, fluttering arpeggios and melodious almost melancholy calls from the saxophone.
In another tune, "Opus for Nathan," Oxman takes his first stab at composing in varied time signatures, changing the meter between 4/4 and 3/4 through the course of the song.
"It was a deceptive tune," he says. "You think it's going to go one way, then it goes another. I was looking for a certain lopsided feel for the tune and when I finished, I felt like we really got it."
These tunes are just a few highlights from Hard Times, which includes originals from some others in the band such as "Copenhagen Revisited" by pianist Joe Bonner, a world-renowned performer who's played with the likes of Pharoah Sanders, Woody Shaw and others.
There's also the CD's classic title tune, which most people know from the late '50s version of the tune sung by Ray Charles. The second cut on the CD after the opener "Tzipora," Oxman's version of "Hard Times" sets the tone for the recording by spanning a wide range of musical moods.
The piece starts with reflective, somber soliloquies from the piano and sax, and winds up with dynamic and spirited improvisations from Oxman and Bonner.
One of the nicest cuts on the CD is a piece called "The Breadline," a tune by Oxman named after the work of art adorning the CD's jacket. A charcoal drawing by local artist William Moore, the image shows a group people holding plates and bowls as they wait for food.
"He's real particular about where his art ends up, so it was a real honor to have William's artwork on the CD," said Oxman, who has since bought the piece and hung it up in his living room.
It may seem a bit anachronistic in these days of hyperbolic economic optimism to see a CD with a title track like "Hard Times," covered with a near social-realist, black-and-white drawing of poor folks.
But Oxman insists he was not trying to make a statement about the new Millennium with his latest recording. "No, absolutely not," Oxman says. "But [the tune "The Breadline"] does have a darker feel to me. It's a minor blues and the minor blues lends itself to that kind of thing ... it seems to fit the feel of the drawing."
Statement or no, Oxman's latest CD covers as many moods as it does musical styles, an enjoyable and skillfully articulated set of new tunes from some of the front range's best musicians.