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Axeman bound for town on heels of his opus

By: warren epstein Special to The Gazette
May 3, 2013 Updated: May 3, 2013 at 11:40 am
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At 50, jazz man Chris Duarte looks back on himself at 21 - the start of his professional music career - and laughs.

'I thought I was it, ' Duarte said during a phone interview. 'I had music figured out. '

Duarte, who plays Saturday at the Crystola Roadhouse, was living in Austin, Texas, the heart of the emerging music scene, and he could play the guitar like it was machine gun.

He'd grown up 80 miles away in San Antonio. His first musical inspiration arrived with the network TV premiere of 'Fiddler on the Roof, ' when he was 8.

'I saw the silhouette of that fiddler on the roof, and thought that was just so cool, ' Duarte said.

He decided he'd learn the violin, but soon found his high school had too many violinists. OK, he'd play the clarinet.

His mom said no.

'I don't know why, ' he said.

Instead, he started borrowing his big brother's guitar.

'It was pretty obvious that it was easier for me to pick things up than my brother, ' he said.

Duarte's first song book was the music of The Beatles.

'There were chords over where the words were, and I found it was really easy for me to play them, ' he said.

Soon Duarte discovered the wild, electrifying riffs of Jimi Hendrix and the ear-popping tunes of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest.

His family moved to Austin when he was 16, and Duarte found himself deep into the jazz scene. While he developed his craft and started playing clubs in his late teens and early 20s, he noted the emerging blues scene with a shrug.

'I had this snobbish attitude toward blues, ' Duarte said. 'I was into jazz. We were doing hard songs. Blues? I thought, 'How simple can you get?' '

Fortunately, Duarte found a mentor who slapped some sense into him. Texas blues legend Bobby Mack took him under his wing and challenged him to learn some classic guitar solos and lyrics by Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf.

'I tried to do it, and I noticed that I didn't sound anything like those guys on the records, ' Duarte said.

'It's so much more than the simple notes. There's this feeling that comes with it. '

Duarte spent the next three decades learning about that feeling. He played as a side man in Bobby Mack and Night Train before forming The Chris Duarte Group and starting to develop his own sound.

In 1994, they released their first album, 'Texas Sugar/Strat Magik, ' with Silvertone Records, and a year later, Duarte was named Best New Talent in Guitar Player magazine.

Critics often compared Duarte's Texas blues to that of his heroes, Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

He has performed primarily with his power trio, originally rounded out by bassist John Jordan and drummer Jeff Hodges, and now featuring bassist Matt Stallard and drummer Chris Burroughs.

With the help of Burroughs and Stallard, Duarte has released his 11th album, 'My Soul Alone, ' an acclaimed opus that pays tribute to his roots with nods to Hendrix, Vaughan, The Beatles and others.

Duarte used to play regularly at the now-defunct Tres Amigos in Woodland Park, and more recently (thanks to Amy Whitesell at A Music Company, Inc. ) has developed a following at the Crystola Roadhouse.

'People can count on it being my in-your-face show, with passion and integrity and no holds barred, ' he said. 'You never know what my show's going to be. '

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