Mark Whitney and The Merchants of Groove

Featuring: Mark Whitney, Chris Cain, Smith Dobson, Modesto Briseño, Bob Blankenship, Daniel Robbins, Keith Saunders, Gail Dobson, Smith Dobson Jr.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, May 7, 2015
Where: Café Stritch, 374 South 1st Street, San Jose, California; call 1-408-280-6161 or visit

Videos from the gig

"My Favorite Things"

"Compared to What"

"The Groove Merchant"

"You Know It's Wrong"

"Slow Boat to China"

Mark Whitney
Natasha Cardenas photo
Mark Whitney performs during The Merchants of Groove show, Thursday, May 7, 2015, at Cafe Stritch in San Jose, California.
Old Friends, new faces,
and great music
Mark Whitney and The Merchants of Groove
check in at Cafe Stritch in San Jose
May 16, 2015

I first met Mark Whitney in Monterey in the fall of 1979, when I moved there to attend college. During the 1980s we played in a couple of bands together, then lost touch. Via the miracle of Facebook, we reconnected not long ago. We then met up again in person last December, when Mark was performing at Little Lou's in Campbell (See Regarding Art's article from December 2014). It's a very telling thing, seeing an old friend after almost thirty years. Despite bald heads and wrinkles, we're still the same guys and pretty much picked it up where we left off.

On May 7, a Thursday night, I had the chance to hook up with Mark again, down at Café Stritch in San Jose, where he was performing with his group, The Merchants of Groove. I wrote a previous piece promoting the gig in April (See RA article from April 12) so now I'm back to report on how things went.

The night started out with The Merchants playing the standard, "I'm Old Fashioned," by Jerome Kern. The tune swung nicely, with Whitney taking a long lush solo on his tenor sax. Mark's playing has evolved tremendously since we gigged together in the '80s. His style is much more relaxed and, with the confidence of a mature player, he allows himself to explore and ponder more adventurous musical turf. Also on the stand were Modesto Briseño (trumpet), Bob Blankenship (drums), Daniel Robbins (bass), and Keith Saunders (piano).

The set continued with the band playing a medley of "Wizard of Oz" tunes, featuring Whitney on flute. While introducing the tune, Mark commented that he had originally arranged the piece for an Obama / Elizabeth Warren victory party in November 2012, back in his home state of Massachusetts. The medley included "It Really Was No Miracle," "Follow the Yellow Brick Road," and, for the occasion of the party in 2012, "Ding Dong the 'Mitch' is Dead."

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After the Oz medley, the band gave a very smooth playing of Thelonius Monk's "Round Midnight," buoyed up by Bob Blankenship's sensitive, yet solidly swinging, drumming. That was followed by an upbeat version of "My Favorite Things," featuring some amazing bass work by Daniel Robbins.

A bit later in the set, Mark brought up some special guests. These included Chris Cain on guitar, Gail Dobson on vocals, and Gail's son Smith Dobson on sax. As I mentioned in the April article, the evening was in tribute to Gail's late husband, also named Smith, for his profound influence on Whitney's music. It also so happens that Gail is another old friend of mine I hadn't seen in decades. Back in the early '80s she and her husband were artists in residence at Cabrillo College when I was a student there. I had the privilege of playing with Gail when she was a featured vocalist with the Cabrillo Jazz Singers. (I was the Jazz Singers' bass player.) I didn't think she'd remember me, but she did. (Thanks, Gail!)

Gail and Smith started out with a bluesy version of "Wild is the Wind" by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington (from the 1957 movie of the same name). The tune also included a lengthy flugel horn solo by Briseño, another product of Cabrillo College. I've seen Briseño perform a few times down at the Hedley Room. When he picks up the flugel, his playing always brings to mind the late Art Farmer — rich, fluid phrases of well-chosen notes, flying from the bell like butterflies.

Gail told me before she got up that she'd been struggling with some laryngitis, so she'd be keeping it short. Albeit short, her performance was a pleasure. It was great to hear her rich, soulful voice in live performance after all these years. She and Smith ended their mother-son bit of the evening with a scatting trade-fours version of Sonny Rollins' "Doxy." Gail made the comment before they began that scatting was something she and her husband did with the kids while they were growing up. How cool it must've been to grow up in a scatting household.

The first set ended when Cain moved over to the piano and began the opening riff for Les McCann's "Compared to What." Whitney sang the somewhat cryptic lyrics, trading off with soulful interjections from Briseño's trumpet.

The evening continued with Chick Corea's "Spain," followed by the band's namesake song, "The Groove Merchant," by Thad Jones, which started out with a rippin' solo by Chris Cain on guitar.

One song that stood out for me in the second part of the show was "You Know it's Wrong" by Eddie Harris. The performance included another round of great solos by each of the Merchants. I've always liked Harris's music, but I'd never heard this tune before. I don't how I missed it. I'm gonna have to find myself a chart.

Toward the end of the second set, Whitney announced that Dobson would be taking control and hosting a jam session, but that before opening up the mic, would be featured on a couple of tunes. The first tune Dobson played was "Slow Boat to China" by Frank Loesser, bringing to mind a favorite recording of mine by Stan Getz. The group then played a tune I hadn't heard performed in years, "Scrapple from the Apple" by Charlie Parker, which always makes me think of the old Jamie Abersold play-along book with the yellow cover (jazz musicians will know).

Yes, it was a night of memories, but it was also a night of new things. Even though I've been in the area long before it opened, it was my first time at "The Stritch." (I'm always a bit of wimp when it comes to the parking and the one-way streets in downtown San Jose.) So that was new. I also learned of that Eddie Harris tune I hadn't heard of before. And then there were new musicians -- Blankenship, Robbins, Saunders were all new names to me. All in all it was a great evening. But what was especially sweet was to see my old friend Mark up on stage, still swinging away.

Email Steven Ackley at

S Dobson, Robbins, Blankenship
Natasha Cardenas photo
Smith Dobson, Daniel Robbins and Bob Blankenship, from left, at the Mark Whitney and The Merchants of Groove show, Thursday, May 7, 2015, at Cafe Stritch in San Jose, California.
Briseño, G Dobson, Robbins, S Dobson
Natasha Cardenas photo
Modesto Briseño, Gail Dobson, Daniel Robbins and Smith Dobson, from left, at the Mark Whitney and The Merchants of Groove show, Thursday, May 7, 2015, at Cafe Stritch in San Jose, California.