For much of his career, George Cotsirilos harbored an uncomfortable secret. By night, the veteran jazz guitarist kept company with some of the Bay Area's most revered improvisers, swinging with quiet efficiency while delivering thoughtfully burnished solos.
But he was so scrupulous about keeping his daytime activities on the down-low that many of his musical peers had no clue about his entanglement in the criminal justice system. Now he can breathe a sigh of relief.
Since officially retiring last year from his longtime faculty position at the UC Berkeley School of Law, where he taught courses on criminal trial practice, Cotsirilos is focusing all of his attention on the guitar. He's done with hiding his legal career from the cats, and his jazz life from his fellow lawyers.
"On a conscious level, I kept them very separate," says the longtime Berkeley resident, who celebrates the release of his new album "Mostly in Blue" (OA2 Records) with a series of gigs around the Bay Area, including Saturday at Bird & Beckett Books and Records in San Francisco and Feb. 18 at St. Albans Church in Albany.
"I never went out of my way to let anybody in one field know about my involvement in the other, for fear that I'd regarded as a dilettante in both spheres," Cotsirilos added. "That fear that was not entirely unfounded."
Listening to "Mostly in Blue," it's hard to believe that anyone would mistake Cotsirilos for a lightweight. It's his fifth release for the label, an impressive run that started in 2003 with his Joe Pass-inspired solo guitar session "Silenciosa."
He introduced his estimable trio with drummer Ron Marabuto and bassist Robb Fisher with 2006's "On the Rebop," an album that also showcased Cotsirilos's skill at crafting sleek, melodically inviting tunes. The trio has been his primary vehicle for the past decade, but with "Mostly in Blue" he adds veteran pianist Keith Saunders into the mix.
A longtime New York player who relocated Albany in 2010, Saunders has become a ubiquitous presence on the Bay Area jazz scene (he performs with saxophonist Noel Jewkes at The Back Room in Berkeley on Feb. 16 and with Headhunters drummer Mike Clark's 4 & More at Piedmont Piano on Feb. 23).
Saunders was initially drawn to Cotsirilos by the presence of Marabuto and Fisher, "one of my favorite bassists," Saunders says. "He's got such an original voice and a freshness and bounce to his playing. Robb and Ron are my favorite rhythm section to play with, and it's been great getting into George's compositions. Some have a modal feel, very driving with more of an East Coast jazz feel."
A Chicago native whose father was a prominent defense attorney, Cotsirilos moved to Berkeley to study at Cal in 1969. He was a blues fanatic more interested in B.B. King than Wes Montgomery, but under the tutelage of the late, beloved East Bay guitar teacher Warren Nunes he began to delve into jazz and other styles.
Over the years Cotsirilos has worked with an array of heavyweights, including tenor saxophone titan Pharoah Sanders and bassist Chuck Israels, Etta James and The Whispers. His most important musical relationship was with the late drum maestro Eddie Marshall, "a real formative thing for me," Cotsirilos says.
At first they played in a quartet with Fisher and pianist Paul Nagel that worked regularly at Larry Blake's in Berkeley (the group recorded an unreleased album led by Cotsirilos in 1980 that finally surfaced when pianist Mark Levine put out "Seems to Be" on his Bay Area Jazz Archives label in 2011). Later, Cotsirilos co-led the San Francisco Nighthawks with Marshall, a highly regarded band that was a staple at Jazz at Pearl's.
At the same time he was earning a bandstand doctorate with Marshall, Cotsirilos was working as a Contra Costa County public defender. By the mid-1980s he had a private practice in San Francisco as a criminal defense lawyer, and joined the Boalt faculty in 1999.
The demands of his legal career often meant he couldn't devote the time he wanted to the guitar. Eventually he found that no matter how much he compartmentalized his life, music and law could overlap, at least conceptually.
"When I'd try to explain how to take a presentation from something competent to something really good I'd use musical metaphors," Cotsirilos says. "Whenever you're trying to organize anything in an artful way it requires a beginning, a buildup, a climactic point, and a conclusion, much like a solo."