By Tom Surowicz Drummer extraordinaire George Avaloz aptly titled his new album, 'The Highest Mountain.' It is indeed a peak performance, a summit session of Twin Cities jazz artistry, present and past. Avaloz asssembled a superband for the session, with old friends flying in from both coasts, plus the creme-de-la-creme of Minnesota bar talent. Now 67, he's excited as a little kid to celebrate it's official release this weekend, at the Artists' Quarter. It only took Avaloz a half-century to climb to the top of Bebop Hill, to put a harmonious exclamation point on a career that began in childhood, on the frequently flooded old West Side of St. Paul, with the 'Mexican Hat Dance.' As a boy, the future jazzman entertained gringos with his hoofing for several years -- at various colleges, The St. Paul Insititute of Arts, The State Fair, and The Festival of Nations. The hat dancing was a hit, and likely a precursor of future endeavors. 'I think, in a funny sort of way, the 'Mexican Hat Dance' had an influence on my taking up the drums. That dance was like a drum thing, almost.' Avaloz demonstrates by tapping out the familiar rhythm on a table in his Highland Park senior highrise apartment. Like fellow jazzman Grady Tate or the late Karen Carpenter, Avaloz is a rare drummer who also sings. His concurrert vocal career also had it's roots in childhood. 'I used to sing duets with my sister Chaya, like Jackie Cain and Roy Kral -- remember them? I used to do the dance with my sister sometimes, too -- she was one of my partners.' Flash forward nearly 60 years and you'll find Avaloz doing a delightful duet with the hardest-working lady in local show biz, Debbie Duncan. They strike up 'A Beautiful Friendship,' on a short and sweet track that's tailor-made for radio play. By the age of 15, Avaloz had become a drummer, taking pro gigs while still in high school. 'At that time, everybody was playing saxophone,' he says. 'I just wanted to be different. Had I known back then that I'd have to haul all that gear around every night, I probably would have played sax, too,' he laughs. For his first professional gig, Avaloz hooked up with saxophonist Kico Rangel, still a friend and still a mainstay of the Twin Cities' Latin music scene. 'We had a Mexican band, doing corridas, cha-chas, mambos, Mexican polkas. His sister Juanita was actually the one who taught me how to do the hat dance.' Since 'The Highest Mountain' is a bringing-it-all-back-home sort of recording, you'll find Kico Rangel and his alto sax as a happy part of the rotating cast. The teenage Avaloz had an obvious gift for hot, splashy, rambunctious rhythms and he was soon diving headlong into jazz. Some of his early Twin Cities bebop cohorts are on board for 'The Highest Mountain,' as well. Veteran sax savants Dave Karr and Gary Berg show up, while another saxophonist and first-rate arranger, Jim Marentic, came back from New York City with his tenor and some terrific charts. 'The Highest Mountain' was several years in the making, and the early sessions also feature firebreathing and beautiful trumpet from Jerry Rusch, the native Minnesotan who wound up in L.A. Rusch flew home for the sessions, too, and his soulful blowing serves as a unique epitaph. He has since died of cancer. Sitting in with legendary singer Billy Eckstine, at the South of the Border Key Club in Minneapolis in the 1950s, proved to be a big turning point in Avaloz's career. Eckstine dug his drumming, and encouraged the youngster to head for Chicago, where the jazz scene was livelier and the singer had a regular engagement at a place called The Tradewinds. Eckstine didn't offer any immediate work, just advice and contacts. But Avaloz established himself quickly in the Windy City, and eventually Eckstine did employ him. 'He sent me a ticket to join him in Reno, Nevada,' the drummer recalls. That was the beginning of another 'beautiful friendship.' Avaloz stayed with the Eckstine band for almost 10 years. His own singing style is very much indebted to the hip romantic baritone. And he's still in contact with the band's chief arranger, pianist Bobby Tucker, also known for his work with Billie Holiday and Tony Bennett. In fact, several of the charts on 'The Highest Mountain' are Bobby Tucker stylings that date back to the Eckstine organization. 'When I was in New York the last time, I got tons of that stuff. Not just Bobby's charts, but other ones by Nelson Riddle, Billy Byers, Johnny Mandel. I've got a whole cabinet stuffed with Eckstine charts.' Avaloz crosses the room and opens the cabinet in question. It is indeed overflowing with 1960s-vintage sheet music. Avaloz's whole apartment is peppered with cool memorabilia from his jazz past. There are photos of several greats whose paths he crossed -- Dexter Gordon, Duke Ellington, Max Roach etc. And photos of the many friends with whom he played and recorded -- sax master Clifford Jordan, hometown singing star Shirley Witherspoon, and Mr. Eckstine, of course. There's a big poster for a Joe Papp-produced New York City play from 1977 titled, 'Unfinished Women Cry In No Man's Land, While A Bird Dies In a Gilded Cage.' Post-bop hero Jackie McLean wrote the music for that show, while Avaloz was the drummer in the band, playing trap set, tympani, gongs, the works! There's also a very complimentary review by John S. Wilson of the New York Times, again from 1977, praising one of Avaloz's own club dates as a bandleader. It's been blown up to four or five times it's newspaper size, printed on poster board, and added to the wall of fame. By far, the most striking and amusing Avaloz artifact is a painted potrait of the handsome Mr. Eckstine sporting devil's ears. 'When we were in Vegas with Billy, he used to keep all the band members out late. They'd go out drinking with him after the casino gigs, and by the time they got home, the guys were stinking drunk. This went on during the whole week. And their wives were starting to complain, loudly. The wives started calling Billy 'The Devil.' So, to add insult to injury, he had these pictures made of himself, with devil horns, and gave one to everybody in the band,' Avaloz laughs. Never a drinker, Avaloz still got into trouble on the home front while working with 'Mr. B.' It's the only reason he left the band. 'I'd be gone for six months a time, and it was hard to keep my marriage together,' he remembers. 'I left the band because I was trying to avoid a divorce. That was a mistake. My old lady wound up leaving me anyway.' Things have a way of working out for the best, at least musically. After a decade with Eckstine's band, with well-established credentials in both the Twin Cities and Chicago, Avaloz took the plunge and moved to the jazz mecca, New York City. 'It bothered me not to see how far I could go,' he explains. 'I had the urge to take my career a step further.' The often unforgiving Big Apple was good to the singing drummer. 'I was lucky, because my whole career, I was able to be the house drummer at a lot of places. In the Twin Cities, there was the White House, where I got play with people like Roland Kirk when they came through town. And in Chicago, I got to work with what was then the local talent. Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Nicky Hill, Clifford Jordan was there, even Sun Ra. He used to wear these outrageous outfits, with party hats. He sure was writing great, though -- kinda like Gil Evans back in them days.' New York City had the best 'house gigs' of all, back in the 1970s heyday of what was called the 'loft jazz' scene. 'At a place called Ladies Fort, I played with everybody,' George says. 'Eddie Gomez, Archie Shepp, Eddie Jefferson, Cedar Walton, Dizzy Reece, you name it.' Avaloz was also a constant at another happening venue called The Tin Palace. 'We started that place, more or less. I worked there over a year -- first set, last set, and in-between jams.' Avaloz made most of his recordings in those heady New York days, turning up on albums by Clifford Jordan, super-singer Joe Lee Wilson, avant bass great Ronnie Boykins, and sax man Monty Waters, among others. His sideman dates have been reissued on CD in Poland, Italy, Japan, even occasionally in his own country. But none of those old sessions gives you the happy overview of Avaloz's art that can be found on 'The Highest Mountain.' It offers combustible Blue Note Records-style hard bop by the pound, lovely balladry complete with live strings, and worldclass arrangements played by a potent phalanx of the Twin Cities soloists. Twenty different artists climbed 'The Highest Mountain' with Avaloz, even including another well-known drummer, Kenny Horst, who took the sticks while Avaloz was singing 'You've Changed' and 'Sophisticated Lady.' 'I think the reason I wound up on the record, is that we go way back,' Horst says. 'George is a few years older than I am, and most people know we grew up in the same basic St. Paul neighborhood. When I started out playing, all the kids in the area talked about George -- he was a big star in the neighborhood. I remember going over to his house to try and get a drum lesson, because he was famous. I got attacked by his dog instead. It was a big doberman, and it came right after me. I talked with George, once the dog calmed down. George was very nice to me, and his dog didn't bite me, either. But I never got the drum lesson.' Tom Surowicz hosts 'Monday Evening Jazz' on KBEM-FM.