Above: Tom Guralnick at his Outpost Performance Space, in Albuquerque's Nob Hill.

“I KIND OF GOT BIT BY THE BUG OF music,” Tom Guralnick says, lifting his trilby hat and replacing it askew atop his head in the kind of effortlessly cool gesture that comes naturally to jazz lifers. Guralnick toured for years as an avant-garde saxophonist and has spent the subsequent decades rubbing elbows with jazz’s finest as New Mexico’s foremost champion of the genre. We’re in the meeting room adjacent to his office at Outpost Performance Space in Albuquerque, an institution he founded in 1988 at another location. It’s one of the few havens for jazz, world, and experimental music fans for hundreds of high-desert miles.

“I’m not on a mission to change people’s minds about jazz,” Guralnick says, “but I am on a mission to give people opportunities, to bring beautiful artistic expression to town.”

Outpost hosts more than 100 concerts each year. And along with Joel Aalberts of the Lensic in Santa Fe, Guralnick shares artistic direction duties for the New Mexico Jazz Festival, which spreads across multiple venues in both cities over the course of three weeks each summer. The festival kicked off in 2006 as an outgrowth of the Santa Fe Jazz and International Music Festival. At that time, Guralnick, along with co-founders Bob Martin and Bob Weil, took the reins, renaming it and making it a two-city affair. Now in its 12th year, the festival keeps expanding, bringing top-tier talent to parts of New Mexico previously unknown in the jazz world. A host of collaborators have come on board, bringing additional support and offering up a range of venues. This year’s roster boasts legends like Pat Martino, Pharoah Sanders, and John Coltrane’s son Ravi.

Outpost’s first home sat on a rise on Morningside Drive, in a building that was once a print shop. The site straddled a residential area and the bustle of Albuquerque’s Nob Hill district. It seated 90 people in a pinch, and Guralnick lived in a small apartment above the main room.

“The night of the opening party, we had everything from avant-garde cellists and string quartets to rock bands to jazz bands to Matachines dancers,” he recalls. “That night, I sort of had an epiphany that this was what the place should be: a home for all these things. All these things that can’t happen in other places.”

Now situated in an unassuming white brick building on Yale Boulevard, just a block from Nob Hill’s stretch of Central Avenue, the interior of Outpost is spacious. With seats for as many as 160 patrons, a grand piano on an elevated stage, and local art gracing the walls, the room is inviting and sophisticated.
Guralnick’s origins in the South Brookline neighborhood of Boston are still detectable in his speech. After experimenting with guitar and harmonica, he picked up a saxophone and started performing at the age of 19 upon transferring to Benning-ton College from Harvard. His inspiration? In part, it was the collaborative album between American saxophonist Stan Getz and Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto (Getz/Gilberto, which featured the hit “The Girl from Ipanema”). But there was also the rapture of moving from an all-men’s college to a coed one. “There were social reasons involved,” he says. “I was 19!”

Guralnick’s migration to the Southwest came by happenstance. He moved to Albuquerque with his then wife, who got her MFA from the University of New Mexico. After they split, Guralnick spent several years touring North America and Europe on the strength of his experimental sax excursions. He returned to New Mexico to sell a house, but something extraordinary happened as he cut a path northward from Texas. “I crossed the state border, and there was all this sandy red earth,” he recalls, “and I realized that this place felt more like home than any other place.” With a that’s-that shrug, he concludes, “I figured I would stay.”

He quickly integrated into New Mexico’s small but burgeoning jazz scene by introducing “important avant-garde musicians” to the long-running New Mexico Jazz Workshop. “From the beginning, I always had an interest in bringing the music that wasn’t already happening here,” Guralnick says, a move that has expanded the tastes of local jazz devotees.

The Lensic’s Aalberts describes Gural-nick as “the leader of the New Mexico jazz scene”—a tastemaker whom audiences trust. “Jazz is something that takes a lot of time to craft in a community,” Aalberts says, “to build up the knowledge base, interest, and resources to make it happen. It’s very exciting that it thrives here.”

Since its inaugural year, the festival has grown significantly, proving that the decidedly urban-identified genre can flourish in the high desert. The number of venues has steadily increased to include partnerships with the City of Albuquerque, the Santa Fe Bandstand, St. John’s College, the South Broadway Cultural Center, and the African American Performing Arts Center. Festival attendance has grown from 10,000 in 2006 to 15,000 last year. The festival also helps sponsor Albuquerque’s booming Summer-fest (see p. 15), which has grown from 10,000 in 2010 to a celebration of 50,000 last year.

But when it comes to making predictions about this year’s festival, Guralnick, characteristically, plays it cool. “I have these moments of not knowing how it’s going to come together,” he says. “Which is appropriate, because it’s jazz, and jazz is about improvisation.” 

The 12th annual New Mexico Jazz Festival will be held from July 13 to August 3, with concerts at various venues in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. A detailed schedule of events can be found on the Outpost Performance Space website, outpostspace.org.

Pat Martino
July 13 and 14
Pat Martino kicks off the festival with two nights at the Outpost. After finding fame in the ’70s for his highly technical guitar compositions, Martino suffered an aneurism and underwent surgery that removed significant portions of his brain and memory. In the aftermath, he unexpectedly recovered his virtuosity on guitar—an unprecedented case study in resilience. Outpost Performance Space, 210 Yale Blvd. SE, Albuquerque

Dexter Gordon Tribute Project
July 15 and 16
Dexter Gordon not only made a huge impression on Guralnick when he was a fledgling sax player, but he left an indelible mark on American music. On Saturday of the opening weekend, a cadre of talent including New Mexico transplant Doug Lawrence on sax and famed drummer Jimmy Cobb (who played on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue) take the stage to perform Gordon standards. Gordon starred in the 1986 Oscar winner Round Midnight, which will be shown on Sunday as part of the tribute. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion with his widow, Maxine. Outpost Performance Space

Jane Bunnett and Maqueque
July 19-21
Flautist and saxophonist Bunnett will be accompanied by the all-female Cuban band Maqueque. July 19 as part of the free Music on the Hill series at St. John’s College, 1160 Camino de Cruz Blanca, Santa Fe; July 20 and 21 at Outpost Performance Space

Pharoah Sanders
July 29
Sprung from John Coltrane’s inner circle, Pharoah Sanders is a living legend. A technical innovator on the tenor sax, the Little Rock native brings his pioneering style for one night only. Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St., Santa Fe; (505) 988-1234; lensic.org

Ravi Coltrane
July 30
A saxophonist like his father, Coltrane brings his own unique flavor to the genre. A veteran of the Newport and Monterey jazz festivals, Ravi’s performances blend post-bop and contemporary stylings. Outpost Performance Space

René Marie
August 5
Closing the New Mexico Jazz Festival is the phenomenal voice of René Marie, a prolific singer and songwriter who began her thriving career at age 42. Since that time, she has written and recorded 11 albums and won acclaim from critics for the way she blends disparate themes in always charming—and strikingly original—melodies. Marie’s performance is in conjunction with the 10th anniversary gala for the African American Performing Arts Center. 310 San Pedro Dr. NE, Albuquerque; (505) 222-0778; aapacnm.org