The story of how the Retro Notes jazz band got its start is a Silicon Valley cliché. An engineer from Norway who moves to Santa Clara and learns to play the alto saxophone meets a guitarist/pianist from Turkey — also an engineer by day — on a volleyball team back in 1991.
The high-tech colleagues — sax player Bendik Kleveland and Gunes Abay, who ends up teaching himself to play the drums — dabble at creating a band for a couple years then drop out to raise their kids.
Then in 2017, they come together again with an underlying sense of urgency — time is fleeting. They advertise on Craigslist and find alto soloist Alexandra Beltran, a sultry-voiced school nurse who grew up in Santa Clara.
“We always said that if we had a good singer and drummer, we’d do really well,” said Kleveland from his home, where the jazz musicians rehearse.
They practice in Kleveland’s two-car garage. However, in the summer, Kleveland’s wife, Vonny, lets them rehearse in the family room, where it’s a tight fit but cooler.
Along the way to distinguishing themselves as the Retro Notes, other instrumentalists also find their way to Kleveland’s garage, such as San Jose resident Brian Yoshida, another Craigslist find. Yoshida comes on board as the bass player but can, says Kleveland, “play any instrument on this planet, even the piano.”
“We do jazz music from the 1920s to present — all covers,” said Abay, a Cupertino resident. “We take known jazz songs and interpret them in our own way, giving them fresh perspective.”
“We do new songs in the old style,” continued Abay. “With jazz songs, we don’t always play them the same way, so there’s lots of communication with band members.”
The band’s debut album, “Retro Notes,” showcasing Beltran’s voice, was released in June. It spans eight decades of music — from the 1930s Yiddish hit “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” to “Blue Skies,” “Route 66” and, a 2009 release, “Your Heart Is As Black As Night.”
“Summertime” is one of Beltran’s favorites, delivered in her smooth, silky voice, reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald. Beltran’s father passed away in 2016, so she sings “Song for My Father” with heartfelt poignancy. The band tailors its music to her voice.
“Being in Retro Notes is a lot of fun. It’s nice being around people who enjoy jazz music,” said Beltran, who began singing as a child. “My stage presence has improved!”
In 2017, Retro Notes began playing at churches and senior homes, such as Villa Serena in Santa Clara. Kleveland has a soft spot for seniors, recalling that his late father-in-law enjoyed the entertainers who came to the senior home where he lived.
“Seniors really enjoy our music. They pay attention and listen carefully,” said Beltran. “It takes them back to when they were young, and they relive fond memories.”
“We keep our songs relatively short and upbeat,” said Kleveland, who also plays clarinet. “Stage presence is important. We’ve all come a long way.”
Retro Notes plays at least one gig a month, including at public venues such as the San Jose Jazz festival, Summerfest 2018. They’ll play on the Sushi Confidential Stage on August 11 at 2 p.m.: www.summerfest.sanjosejazz.org/artists/retro-notes. Check the band’s website for other performance dates and locations and information: www.retronotes.org.
“We would like Retro Notes to reach an even wider range of audiences. At the one extreme, we would like to provide high quality performances at small places with limited budgets. At the other extreme, we would like to put on shows at bigger stages,” said Kleveland.
“Both of these have their own set of challenges,” said Kleveland. “Big dreams are obligatory, though, when you start out in a garage in the Silicon Valley.”
Kleveland shared the story of summer evenings last year when, to break out of the garage and give his family a break, he practiced on the campus of a local elementary school — until a distant neighbor called the police. Three police cars showed up, ending his outdoor practice sessions.
“The sax is a loud instrument,” said Kleveland, “especially when I play it.”