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Young string man's set promises to be "hot'

Guitarists always have been popular.

Whether they play bass or rhythm, acoustic or electric, guitarists speak to the audience through their instruments in a way other musicians rarely do.

From the riveting bass of Stanley Clarke to Jimi Hendrix's haunting rhythmic wails, string men have always moved a crowd.

Mark Whitfield is creating his own tradition, establishing his place among a new generation of jazz guitarists.

This 24-year-old Long Island, N.Y., native, considered prolific among his cronies, will perform cuts from his new album Patrice and other selections in what he promises to be a "hot set" Sunday at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday.

Speaking from his home in Baton Rouge in a rare free moment, Whitfield says he enjoys playing jazz festivals, and he tours quite extensively. Between dates at jazz clubs, festivals and small theaters across the country, Whitfield also is on the tail end of recording his next album, due out in February.

With two highly acclaimed albums to his credit _ the 1990 debut, The Marksman, and 1992's Patrice _ and another going into production, Whitfield is almost a lifetime away from the 7-year-old boy who taught himself to play.

"The guitar was the first instrument I owned. My brother gave me a guitar, and a Lightnin' Hopkins blues record," he says .

Whitfield says he thinks part of the reason he had such a yearning to play guitar is that he didn't have the chance to play it in school back in New York.

"I played just about everything else, like the sax and the acoustic bass in the school jazz band," he remembers. "But I never got to play what I wanted to."

In fact, he didn't get to play guitar in school until his family moved to Seattle. But, like most other guitar greats, Whitfield taught himself to play by listening to records and other musicians. He took a few lessons on the side and practiced constantly.

"Most jazz guitarists are self taught to some extent because classical teachings just don't transfer," says Whitfield, who graduated from the Berklee School of Music having studied music theory. "So, jazz guitar is a very personal endeavor. Each player has to figure their style out for themselves."

It was Whitfield's style that drew him to the attention of another renowned string man, George Benson. Whitfield's encounter with Benson reads like a classic Hollywood discovery.

"I was playing after hours in a jam fest at the Blue Note in New York, and George was there," he says. "He said he was impressed with what I was doing, that I reminded him a lot of himself. Then he told me he was leaving, but that he'd get in touch with me."

Benson never left.

He was so taken by young Whitfield's playing that he stayed, obscuring himself so that Whitfield would feel comfortable jamming. The two eventually became friends, and Benson opened the doors that helped land Whitfield an exclusive Warner Bros. recording contract. Since his debut album in 1990, Whitfield has maintained a steady following and the respect of his peers in what seems to be a renaissance of young jazz musicians.

"I'm lucky to be a part of the hysteria about Wynton Marsalis," he says. "Because he brought back so much interest in jazz, I think people like me, Roy Hargrove, Courtney Pine, etc., are reaping some of the benefits."

Whitfield is playing with a band now, and says he has taken his playing up a notch on the upcoming album. He cut five tunes with the new band and feels fortunate that he had the resources to "get the best out of the people I recorded with."

While Whitfield's albums have garnered him respect in the music world, he says he believes his live performances are one of his strong points.

"I've never been much of a studio musician," he admits. "But in my live shows, I always give 110 percent. My band gives that much. We don't hold anything back. The audience definitely won't be bored."


Mark Whitfield

at 3:30 p.m.