Nile Kinney, Randy Sears and Marty Townsend met in the late 1960s while on the cusp of high school. They shared two things in common: Bakersfield and a love of jazz.
All were considered among the city's top musicians while still teens: Kinney on trombone, Sears on drums and Townsend on guitar.
Their friendship turned collaborative while members of the Bakersfield College Jazz Big Band around 1973 (only Townsend attended BC). About the same time they began an ambitious music project combining elements of jazz, rock and classical music.
The complicated arrangements written by Kinney were challenging for live performances, but a sextet they'd formed played them at a handful of gigs. Mostly the group rehearsed, and eventually recorded a demo tape before dispersing.
Afterward, Townsend and Sears toured together and with various bands for years. Kinney became an oil and gas attorney.
While the music project they'd begun lay dormant, the trio maintained sporadic contact with one another for the next 40 years.
In 2010 they resurrected the idea of completing the project, called "Leopard." Beginning in earnest in 2011, and following two years of studio work in Bakersfield and Belgium, the CD was recently released.
More than a melding of individual brilliance, "Leopard" encompasses the full range of three friends' personal and musical journeys through illness and across distance, a testament to friendships and the power of music.
Randy Sears, 59
The way Sears remembers it, he was playing with several country bands in Bakersfield in 1988 when he started getting daylong headaches. It progressed to where the pressure behind his left eye was unbearable.
"I started playing with my right hand while my left hand covered my left eye in order to catch it if, in fact, it popped out," he said.
One morning he had a seizure and went into a coma. A week later he was operated on for a brain abscess, and then spent two more weeks comatose.
Sears' years of world touring as Tina Turner's drummer from 1979-81, playing with Steve Perry who went on to front Journey, his appearance with Marty in the semifinals of the TV show "Star Search," the precursor to "American Idol" -- all that was gone.
In its place was a speech impediment, little use of his left hand, arm and leg, seizures, chronic hiccups and the necessity of learning not just how to play the drums again but also how to walk.
"I had no grip or dexterity and I had to keep correcting my balance as I sat at the drums to play," he said. "I had to slow everything I played down to an agonizing pace to retrain my limbs and hands to work in sync.
"Retraining myself to play drums was a mixture of not wanting to give up the thing I loved most in life and a headstrong refusal not to feel sorry for myself."
He relied on his past, on remembering where his love affair with drums began, with two older brothers immersed in rock and an aunt who gave him a recording of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" when he was about 12.
He originally taught himself drums by playing along to records, and learned by listening to Jimi Hendrix's and Blood Sweat & Tears' drummers how a jazz approach and technique could be superimposed on the rock music he was playing.
His interest in Big Band came with SouthHigh School's stage band and the realization of a drummer's vital role.
"I always like that leadership role as far as performing the music and drums in Big Band, which is more about making the band sound good than the drummer," Sears said.
He never forgot the sextet from the early 1970s that had included Marty and Nile, and while it had stayed together just a short time, he loved the way the musical shaping and arranging allowed room for individual expression.
Sears contacted Nile in 2010 about not only preserving the music from 40 years earlier, but reworking it.
"I knew I wanted to contribute something to his recording to give the drum/percussion tracks more authenticity.
"I had a strong notion Nile would be receptive to my input."
Nile Kinney, 60
Kinney played the trombone because his father, still a gifted piano player today at 95, told him to. But he loved the instrument and went to the University of Southern California School of Music in 1971.
Two years later, the principal trombone chair for the L.A. Philharmonic came open, and at age 19, Kinney auditioned. First, though, he took a reduced year of classes to practice the repertoire list. He finished fifth among 500 applicants.
He had grown up with music. His mother and sisters sang. He listened to everything from Sinatra and Shostakovich to Hendrix and The Hi-Lo's.
His musical background included playing gigs with his father, and with several symphonies in the L.A. area.
By the time he finished at USC, he'd switched majors to philosophy, and then earned a master's from UCSB. That was in 1979, the same time the department memoed graduates about the dearth of available liberal arts jobs.
Kinney decided to go to USC Law School. The first week of classes he received an invitation to join The Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band for a tour of Scandanavia and Eastern Europe.
The 16-piece ensemble, voted the best in Down Beat magazine's Big Band category from 1979-1983 and ultimately nominated for 14 Grammy awards, was the band of every jazz musician's dreams.
Kinney turned them down. "So I really had a blast in law school," he said. "Yeah, sure."
He stayed connected to his music while practicing law in L.A., but switched to piano after developing a small lip tremor that prevented him from playing the trombone at a high level.
Until the late 1980s he had little contact with Randy and Marty.
"We were in totally separate worlds," Kinney said, "what with me in law school and starting my career in downtown L.A. We first saw each other again (in 1989) when we regrouped to play a benefit for Randy's illness. It was awesome to reunite for that.
"We ... hibernated for years, musically, while Randy recovered."
Kinney continued making his own music in a home studio, writing songs, fiddling with arrangements, composing. Occasionally, he'd tap out the music he'd originally composed for the sextet in the early '70s.
"When Randy contacted me to resurrect the early '70s music, we decided to do a couple of the old tunes, rearranged, and then a couple of new tunes that I wrote recently," Kinney said.
"To this day we still have a strong intuitive sense of what each of us will play, which allows each of us to 'leave room' for the other in the sound.
"It was fun to expand on what we'd done then, filling in with lines I'd always hoped to do but never did until now."
Marty Townsend, 59
One night when Marty Townsend was 16, Duke Ellington's band was playing at the Bakersfield Inn.
Since admittance was limited to those 21 and older, Townsend's mother snuck him in through the kitchen, where he watched from a doorway.
His mother was a huge fan of pianists Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner and George Shearing and guitarists Wes Montgomery and Howard Roberts.
Starting on piano, he switched to guitar after seeing the Beatles on TV in 1964.
"I went to high school with Nile at BHS," Townsend said, while Randy attended South. "I remember playing a few times with a band Nile had. We played an interesting mixture of music including Beatles, Blood Sweat & Tears and (Frank) Zappa.
"Even at that time Nile was transcribing and arranging some very sophisticated stuff that no one else would even attempt."
Townsend joined Sears in a three-night-a-week band in the early '70s and remained a professional musician in Bakersfield until the mid-1980s, "when the DJ thing started ruining business for musicians," he said, since until that point all music -- weddings, bar mitzvahs, Elks Club -- was live.
After their group Pressure Point reached the semifinals of "Star Search" in 1986, they played hotels and casinos in Las Vegas, Tahoe and around California. But the next year Townsend's wife was hired to teach at the headquarters of the Allied Command in Europe, known as SHAPE, in Casteau, Belgium, and he left the U.S.
For the past quarter century, Townsend has built a reputation as a top session guitarist, arranger and producer in Europe.
"Randy contacted me in late 2010," Townsend said. "He told me he and Nile were reworking some of Nile's tunes we had played years ago and wanted to know if I was interested in participating.
"We had made some crude recordings back in 1974 or '75, which I still have on cassette. On all the road trips Randy and I did over the years we used to listen to those recordings and wish that we could do something with that music."
Townsend had just updated his home studio, and now had the technology to collaborate with Sears and Kinney.
"Also, the opportunity to work with two of my all-time favorite musicians and great friends was just too good to pass up."