A whole lot of ‘jazz’ makes Sunseri ‘Sunny’
STEUBENVILLE –The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t exactly been music to Dr. Sunny Sunseri’s ears, since 2020 brought jazz gigs he’s part of to a halt.
So that makes it all the sweeter that the music genre he so loves is something the Steubenville native can share with a local audience from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday at the Gaslite Restaurant and Lounge at 820 Canton Road, Wintersville.
The Sunny Sunseri Jazz Trio that includes Joe DeFazio and Roger Barbour, both of Pittsburgh, will perform jazz, standards from the Great American Songbook, Bossa nova and other forms of Latin music.
“In the past year, the pandemic has shut down venues where we would play,” Sunseri said, citing normal venues running the gamut from restaurants, night clubs and private homes to parties, public events and outdoor happenings.
“In a normal year, we do as many as six to eight (gigs) a month all over the Tri-State Area but in recent years, it’s primarily the Pittsburgh area with an occasional gig in the Steubenville area,” he said.
Sunseri’s jazz talents were an entertainment staple locally, for example, when the United Way of Jefferson County held its Jazz in the Garden events to thank the nonprofit’s faithful supporters.
“We started in 2002 doing that,” he said of an event that hasn’t happened in more recent years.
Born and raised in Steubenville, Sunseri has been playing with many different musicians and different bands in the area jazz scene since 1980, but his interest came well before that.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t get involved in any kind of music training as a teenager but when I got into medical school, I had a roommate who played the guitar, and so he started teaching me, and I got really interested in it,” Sunseri said. “We played together there, and I started to hear jazz music and thought, boy, that’s something I’d like to get involved in.
“I think one of the things that triggered it is the Bossa nova arrival in the ’60s with (jazz saxophonist) Stan Getz and, of course, ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ that hit the scene, and it just really took off from there,” Sunseri said of his interest in what was a new type of jazz-infused music. “When I heard that, I said that’s what I want to play, what I want to do, so I was kind of, quote unquote, studying that during the time I was finishing medical school and my internship, and then I was in the service for two years,” said Sunseri, who practiced medicine with his father, Dr. Albert Sunseri.
During the 1960s and ’70s, Sunseri studied harmony, theory and guitar with Ed Yance of the Mingo Junction area. Yance was a former guitarist with the Gene Krupa Band. “He’d been out on the road with some big names in jazz, and he had come back to this area and was playing all over the place, but also teaching here in Steubenville, so I started taking lessons with him and that’s when I really got into the understanding of music theory,” said Sunseri, who resides in Pittsburgh. “He kind of instructed me on what I was trying to play and helped me with it so I eventually ended up playing with him and in various locations around Steubenville, Wheeling and other areas.”
Sunseri made the switch from electric guitar to acoustic bass in 1980, studying in Pittsburgh with Jeff Mangone of Duquesne University School of Music on a sought-after recommendation from Joe Negri, a jazz guitarist who appeared in “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.” Sunseri had known Negri from having seen him perform at various venues.
He studied bass about three years. “I went to places where jazz was played and some jazz players would let me sit in on gigs and pretty soon I was doing that on a fairly regular basis, and I actually started getting some jobs. That was in 1980,” he explained.
From there it evolved into playing with different musicians in the Pittsburgh area, one of whom was pianist Carl Arter, with whom he became bassist in 1986. Arter was a Pittsburgh music legend as a pianist, saxophonist and music teacher whose more than 60-year career involved associations with famous jazz artists, among them John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Ahmad Jamal and Ray Brown. His most famous student, Sunseri points out in a resume, was saxophonist Stanley Turrentine.
Sunseri continued as Arter’s bass player and as an “on-call” bassist for many other jazz musicians, working various venues in Pittsburgh, Akron, Cleveland, Florida, Hilton Head, S.C., and New York. His association with Arter continued until his death in January 2006.
Sunseri has worked with a variety of Pittsburgh jazz musicians, a long list that includes Ray Crummie and Joe Negri and has played in casual, jam-session settings with a host of notables as well, among them Stanley Turrentine and Chris Brubeck.
A member of the board of the Washington Jazz Society since 2019, Sunseri continues an active career in music, performing most recently with the Roger Barbour Jazz Quartet.
What name a group has for a performance hinges on who got the gig, Sunseri explained, when asked about the official name of the group he is in Tuesday and in other instances. “We’re basically independent musicians who work with different groups,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons and the other is because I am from here, and people recognize my name,” he said of the restaurant sign notice of his performance this week.
Sunseri enjoys playing for a number of reasons.
“Well, one of the things I enjoy is the challenge to work with another musician and be able to make what we’re playing not only acceptable, but good,” he explained. “With the bass, it’s a constant learning process and with music it’s a constant learning process, so I enjoy the challenge but also the satisfaction of making it come together and have the audience appreciate it,” Sunseri said.
“I think one of the things I enjoy about it is if you’re playing jazz, you play a musical, you play a song with a specific melody, so when you start that particular song, the process is to play that melody the way it is originally written, and then each individual in the group has the opportunity to do what is called improvisation on that melody, playing their own interpretation of what they’re hearing with the melody, basically composing their own interpretation of this,” Sunseri continued.
“And one of the things that’s enjoyable about that is that, as the bass player, I have to make sure that chord changes are followed so that essentially the basic part of the melody, the song, is outlined for the improviser so that’s one of the challenges of being the bass player — to make sure you have that basic construction of the song outlined in the way it is supposed to be and also have to make sure that whatever rhythm they’re going to be playing, that I also make sure that rhythm is maintained,” he said of what he described as some challenges of being the bass player.
Improvisations done, the focus is returning united “to restate the melody of the song again.”
That jazz is “unpredictable,” Sunseri agrees, constitutes one of its attractions. “It is unpredictable but you have to make sure that unpredictability doesn’t upset the construction of the playing.”
Music is a constant teacher for those who choose to be a forever student. “You never stop learning — there’s always something more to learn and accomplish with music,” Sunseri said.