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Famed saxophonist Charlie Mariano succumbs to cancer

Long before “world music” became a record-store bin label, the Ornette Coleman-mentored jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, the multi-reeds players Yusef Lateef (who began using non-Western instruments in jazz from the early 1950s) and Charlie Mariano, the Boston-born musical globetrotter, were living world music lives without the need of the name. Mariano, who has died aged 85 of cancer, was a Charlie Parker and Johnny Hodges-inspired saxophonist who developed a lifelong interest in Eastern music and brought the oboe-like south Indian nadaswaram to jazz.

Mariano, Lateef and Cherry were all of a similar species, in their curiosity, and in their indifference to orthodoxies. Cherry was as likely to perform a John Lee Hooker blues on a Malinese hunting guitar as a warp-speed free-bop tune, and his simple definition of world music was “the music of people who have been listening and travelling”. Mariano similarly endorsed the theory that not being in a hurry to be somewhere else is an essential prerequisite for truly listening to what a stranger is telling you. Like Cherry, who roamed in a camper van and sat in with village musicians on three continents, Mariano was often a nomad, and many years of his life were spent in transit.

Though Parker and the Duke Ellington rhapsodist Hodges were originally his alto-sax models, he was later to sidestep virtuoso displays of technique and speed in favour of atmosphere, timbre and distinctive combinations of sounds. He demonstrated those talents consistently in European groups with the German bassist Eberhard Weber, the French guitarist Philip Catherine, the Danish percussionist Marilyn Mazur and others.

But Mariano began his journey in the company of some of the American jazz scene’s most illustrious and influential performers, playing around Boston in the early 1950s with the then trumpeter Quincy Jones. He also worked with Stan Kenton’s gargantuan and idiomatically wide-ranging orchestra in the middle of that decade and then joined the tempestuously innovative and inspirational bassist/composer Charles Mingus, recording, among other classics, the evocative 1963 albums Black Saint and Sinner Lady, and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus.

Following his marriage to the Japanese pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, Mariano departed for the Far East in 1960, beginning the most personally committed phase of his career. Studying in Malaysia, he took up the nadaswaram and made its haunting sound a regular feature of his work.

Mariano was born in Boston and shared his father’s love of opera, while discovering the excitement of big-band jazz on the radio. He served in the United States army from 1943. While based on the West Coast, he was astounded by the sound of Parker on the bop messiah’s first trip to Billy Berg’s club in Hollywood, and on demobilisation he studied music at the Schillinger House, Boston (later to become the Berklee School of Music), with Jones, among others.

He then worked with local groups and led his own Boston All Stars ensemble in 1953. He joined Kenton later that year, toured with him until 1955, and regularly played in small groups with the Kenton trombonist Frank Rosolino before moving to Los Angeles to work with the elegant, cool-bop drummer Shelly Manne.

In 1958, Mariano returned to Boston to teach at Berklee, married Akiyoshi two years later and ran a cooperative group with her for the next seven years, also working with Mingus. The pair made one album, The Toshiko-Mariano Quartet, had a daughter and divorced in 1965. Mariano returned to Berklee’s teaching staff regularly, and formed the jazz-rock group Osmosis in 1967.

In the early 1970s, he moved to Europe and played with many of the continent’s jazz luminaries, including Catherine, the pianist Jasper van’t Hof and others in the fusion band Pork Pie. He frequently played Indian instruments in this period and tirelessly explored ways in which their tonalities could be creatively spliced with the principles of bebop improvisation.

Mariano was also a founding member of the Europe-wide United Jazz and Rock Ensemble in 1975, played with the Swiss pianist George Gruntz, and with Weber’s Colours (1975-80). Weber’s slow-moving group was one of the most popular early manifestations of the new and increasingly influential agenda of the ECM record label, and its atmospherics and sense of space symbolised a new phase for the evolution of jazz in Europe.

From 1988 Mariano also worked with free-improvising players, including the English percussionist Tony Oxley and the trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, with the Weather Report founder and bassist Miroslav Vitous (1989) and with the eclectic Lebanese oud-player Rabih Abou-Khalil for a decade from the mid-1980s. He also collaborated with singer/songwriter Konstantin Wecker, and from 1991 was associated with a group whose name precisely defined his lifetime’s outlook — the International Commission for the Prevention of Musical Border Control.

Mariano’s haunting sound and frequent migration to a high, imploring register was heard extensively on records in the 1990s — notably on the lively Mariano and Friends album that celebrated his 70th birthday, and with a vigorous band including the excellent guitarist Vic Juris in 1998 (Savannah Samurai). A sketchbook by his painter wife Dorothee inspired the East-West collaboration with a group of Indian musicians on Bangalore, and he worked with classical orchestras, in tango collaborations and on straight ahead jazz projects up to his 80s.

Mariano had been given a year to live in 1995 following the discovery of prostate cancer but a mixture of orthodox and alternative therapies kept him going creatively and physically for a further 14 years. He is survived by his wife, six daughters, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. —

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