Tonight at the Subterranean: A saxophone sisterhood

The Tiptons Saxophone Quartet in action. Photo: Markus Lackinger/www.jazzfoto.at

On the bandstand at least, sisterhood still packs a punch. For more than two decades, the all-female Tiptons Saxophone Quartet has delivered fiercely grooving music and vocals complete with synchronized stage moves and kinetic arrangements drawing on a daunting array of rhythmic traditions, from post-bop jazz and Cresent City funk to West Africa and the Balkans.

“The main criteria is music that really expresses soul,” says Tiptons alto saxophonist Amy Denio, an internationally esteemed composer and multi-instrumentalist who has received commissions from numerous modern dance companies. “Wherever it comes from, that’s what we’re looking for.”

In a well-considered Subterranean Art House double bill tonight at 8:00 pm, the Tiptons join the Real Vocal String Quartet, another all-female ensemble that combines gorgeous four-part vocal harmonies, foot stomps, and percussive bow techniques with melodies and rhythms from Brazil, West Africa, Appalachia and the Balkans.

Formerly known as the Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet, the Tiptons came together in Seattle in the late 1980s when several women playing sax in various rock and jazz combos started looking for more room to stretch out. The band signaled its gender-conscious agenda with a moniker borrowed from Billy Tipton, an accomplished but little known West Coast jazz pianist. Tipton gained notoriety when it was revealed after her death in 1989 that she had spent decades passing as a man, a fact unknown even to her wife of many years (the late Stanford professor Diane Wood Middlebrook wrote a fascinating account of Tipton’s life in the 1998 biography “Suits Me”).


Female membership certainly didn’t guarantee smooth sailing for the BTMSQ, which broke up in 2000 after a long and contentious series of disputes. “A band is like a marriage,” Denio says. “We tried therapy several times, seriously.”

In 2002, however, BTMSQ founding members Denio and Jessica Lurie, who has gained a lot of attention with the jazz/funk trio Living Daylights and her own Balkan-tinged Jessica Lurie Ensemble, decided to recreate the group as The Tiptons. The band’s latest incarnation, officially billed as the Tipton Saxophone Quartet and Drums, features Denio, Lurie, tenor saxophonist Sue Orfield, baritone saxophonist Tina Richerson and drummer John Ewing. This is the group’s first East Bay performance in several years.

Recommended

Berkeley fiddler Kaila Flexer presents Pomegranates & Figs Saturday at Freight & Salvage, a showcase for musicians exploring a fascinating array of Mediterranean, Eastern European and Near Eastern cultures once encompassed by the Ottoman Empire. The program features a quadruple bill of ensembles committed to creating contemporary music based on intimate knowledge of traditional styles and modes.

Flexer’s duo with string wizard Gari Hegedus, Teslim, plays a haunting repertoire of tunes inspired by Greek, Turkish and Sephardic music, mostly set to traditional Turkish modes known as maqam. Hegedus is also an essential member of Eliyahu & The Qadim Ensemble, a Middle Eastern world jazz combo that has cultivated a similarly expansive sensibility. Led by multi-instrumentalist Eliyahu Sills, the group features Berkeley’s Rachel Valfer on vocals and oud, Syrian-born Faisal Zedan on Arabic percussion, Moroccan-born Bouchaib Abdelhadi on vocals, percussion and strings, percussionist Jason Ranjit Parmar, and multi-instrumentalist Evan Fraser.

Klezmer’s leading power trio, Veretski Pass, is an innovative band featuring Cookie Segelstein on violin and viola, Stuart Brotman on bass, cello, tilinca and baraban, and Joshua Horowitz on chromatic button accordion, cimbalom and piano. Focusing on Carpathian, Romanian and Ottoman Hebraic styles, Veretski Pass explores musical terrain where Teslim and the Qadim Ensemble have also been known to tread. Rounding out the bill is Oakland Folkharmonica, a string quintet featuring Flexer, Shira Kammen, Danielle Taylor, Rachel Taylor, and Kyla Danysh.


Subterranean Art House is at 2179 Bancroft Way. The Tiptons Saxophone Quartet plays at 8:00 pm.

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

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