At UC Berkeley, the musicians are making it up

dan tepfer

Pianist Dan Tepfer: a featured performer in Cal Music Department’s benefit concert on March 2. Photo: John Guillemin

Cal is a bustling world unto itself peopled by an extraordinary array of scholars, scientists and artists, which can make keeping track of campus events an overwhelming undertaking. But the creative ferment taking place in the Department of Music’s Jazz and Improvised Music (JIM) Initiative shouldn’t go unnoticed.

On Saturday March 2, JIM presents a benefit concert at Hertz Concert Hall featuring pianist Dan Tepfer, who often collaborates with alto sax master Lee Konitz, and woodwind player Ben Wendel, a founding member of the influential band Kneebody (a Q&A with the artists precedes the concert, and a reception follows). The Berkeley Nu Jazz Collective, an impressive group of JIM graduate students, opens the concert.

Pianist/composer Myra Melford, an associate professor of improvisation and jazz, connected with Wendel while performing with Berkeley bassist Todd Sickafoose several years ago, and knew that he would be a hit in the program.

Woodwind player Ben Wendel, who plays Berkeley March 2, is a founding member of the influential band Kneebody

“My students are huge Ben Wendel fans through Kneebody and his own work,” Melford says. “I’ve had it in mind to invite him up for a while, and we were finally able to schedule it.”

Part of a West Coast tour, the concert serves as Wendel and Tepfer’s album release gig for their gorgeous new duo project Small Constructions (Sunnyside Records). With Tepfer alternating between piano and Fender Rhodes and Wendel playing soprano, alto, and tenor saxophone, bassoon, and melodica, they create a fascinating array of textures and sounds (they even switch instruments on the album’s last track, with Wendel on piano and Tepfer on alto sax).

Exploring ingenious ballads by Thelonious Monk, pianist Lennie Tristano’s classic linear improvisation “Line Up,” the occasional standard (“Darn That Dream”), Handel’s “Variation 1 in D Minor,” and a bevy of playful originals, the duo lovingly extrapolates on a series of lush melodies, drawing freely from jazz, classical, pop and new music.

A highly regarded composer, Wendel has received two Chamber Music America New Works Grants and won the 2007 International Songwriting Competition (the same year he worked with conductor Kent Nagano in producing a series of concerts for the Festpeil Plus in Munich, Germany).

His film credits include co-writing the score for John Krasinski’s 2009 adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.”

Wendel and Tepfer’s performance is the fifth JIM fundraiser since pianist/composer Myra Melford joined the faculty in 2004. Previous concerts featured heavyweights such as her Trio M with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Matt Wilson, pianist Denny Zeitlin, and pianist/drummer Art Lande with reed master Paul McCandless. The funds raised go toward honoraria for master classes and guest artists, student support and basic supplies.

“We desperately need a new drum kit,” Melford says. “We’re definitely on a shoestring. We’ve used the money this year for the Berkeley Nu Jazz Collective. It’s a group of students who have been working with me for years, and they recorded an album at Fantasy in the fall. Some funds paid for recording and mastering. Ideally we’d like to start an endowment.

Cal’s Music Department to host Improvisation Weekend, March 15-17

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Trombonist George Lewis in concert. Photo: Andy Newcombe/Wikipedia Commons

Compared to the longstanding reputation of Mills College as an engine of musical innovation in the Bay Area, Cal’s Department of Music has often seemed sleepy and cut off from the region’s thriving scene. That’s starting to change. On March 15-17, the department is hosting Improvisation Weekend, a series of lectures, panes, workshops and concerts exploring various faced of improvisation. The weekend kicks off Friday afternoon at Morrison Hall with George Lewis’s third Block lecture “Why Do We Want Our Machines to Improvise?”

A polymathic figure known for his work as a trombonist, composer, electronic music explorer, installation artist, theorist, and award-winning chronicler of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Lewis taught at Mills for several years and is now Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University. He gives the second Block lecture “Method and Madness in Experimental Improvised Music,” Friday afternoon at Morrison Hall. Melford credits his presence with sparking the Improvisation Weekend programming.

“George has galvanized a lot of cross disciplinary discussion in our department,” Melford says. “What we have now is a lot of different colleagues talking to each other. Musicologists, composers, a baroque harpsichordist who’s a specialist on baroque improvisation, we’re finding a lot of really interesting areas of discussion.”

Improvisation Weekend culminates Sunday night at Freight & Salvage, where Melford hosts a concert featuring a gaudy array of international talent, including Ben Brinner, Edmund Campion, Lisa Gold, Miya Masaoka, Midyanto, Nicole Mitchell, Roscoe Mitchell, Heni Savitri, Ken Ueno, and David Wessel. Think of the concert as one small but significant step off campus for JIM, says Melford, “to try to involve as much of the community as we can.”

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also 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. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

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