Sarah Wilson was feeling lost.
The Healdsburg native had just graduated from UC Berkeley and was living in New York in the early '90s. Her goal was to make it as a trumpeter in the Big Apple's ultracompetitive jazz scene. Yet she wasn't sure how she was supposed to accomplish that when the clubs already were filled with music conservatory grads and young prodigies, most of whom boasted spectacular technique and undeniable chops.
Then Wilson went to see acclaimed jazz pianist-composer Carla Bley at New York's trendy Knitting Factory. A few songs into Bley's set, Wilson had found what she'd been seeking.
"I had this complete epiphany, 'Oh, my God, it's about Carla's music,' " says Wilson, who now calls Oakland home. "And I thought, 'There's my model -- I'll just play my music.' "
Since then, she's focused on composing and performing her own music, leaving the attempts to set world records for finger speed to other jazz trumpeters.
That focus seems to be working for the 43-year-old musician. She's drawing sizable acclaim for her recordings -- especially last year's "Trapeze Project" -- while earning notice as a composer. That translates to ever-more-impressive bookings, including dates with her quintet Friday at San Francisco's hip Red Poppy Art House and Saturday at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Wilson knows that none of this might have been possible without that true "aha" moment during the Knitting Factory gig. Now, she's
It's a collection of songs in tribute to or inspired by Bley, Berkeley pianist Myra Melford and legendary New York trumpeter Laurie Frink, all of whom greatly influenced Wilson's career.
"If these women hadn't come before me, I don't think I would be doing what I'm doing," Wilson says.
That might be especially so in regard to Frink, who, through her trailblazing efforts, helped make New York City's male-centric jazz world a safer place for female instrumentalists.
"She was the first woman to play in the Broadway pits," Wilson remarks. "She was this vanguard musician."
As for Melford, she has performed in Wilson's group and was featured on the "Trapeze Project" -- facts that still wow Wilson.
"When I first heard Myra's music, I was just blown away," Wilson says. "She was kind of this hero to me."
As it stands, Wilson has no set plans to record "The Mentor Project" -- but she hopes that will change in the near future. She will, however, mix in "Mentor" music, alongside "Trapeze" cuts and other selections, during her Bay Area concerts.
That one of those gigs is at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival illustrates just how far Wilson has come, especially given that she once had no intention of becoming a professional musician.
"I started playing trumpet as a kid, but it wasn't serious at all," says Wilson, who in recent years has added vocals to her game. "If you'd told me at 16 years old that I would be a trumpet player, I would have laughed in your face."
She first picked up the trumpet at age 10, mainly due to her interest in Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder and other soul/pop/rock acts with triumphant horn sections. She later signed on with the Healdsburg High School Band before dropping the trumpet altogether at age 16.
Her interest in music was reignited after she graduated from UC Berkeley in 1991 with a degree in anthropology, when she took a job with the Bread and Puppet Theater, a traveling performance group based in Vermont. Her duties with that troupe -- famed for its use of giant puppets -- included composing, conducting and performing music. Wilson stayed with the puppet theater for two years before relocating to New York City in 1993 to devote herself to music.
Her time in the Big Apple was spent studying with other trumpeters and musicians, working for Lincoln Center's Out of Doors Festival's annual puppet program, making connections and doing all the usual things that aspiring artists do.
But her solo career didn't take flight until after she moved back to Northern California in 2005 -- the same year she released her critically acclaimed debut CD, "Music for an Imaginary Play." The decision to return, however, was based more on personal, rather than professional, goals.
"When you grow up in a place like Healdsburg, and you live in a place like New York, you know there is a better quality of life out there," she says. "And I think New York was starting to take more out of me than it was giving to me.
"In moving back here, I think I did want to start a family," adds Wilson, who calls her trumpet her only child. "But you have to trust what your path is -- and I guess my path is this."
Read Jim Harrington's Concert Blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts/. Follow him at http://twitter.com/jimthecritic.