A great film score doesn’t just highlight the action on screen. It can set the scene, amplify the mood, juice the rhythmic flow, and add psychological depth to characters. At its best, movie music can stand apart from the images for which it was conceived, and for almost two decades Orchestra Nostalgico has dedicated itself to celebrating the work of masters such as Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, and Bernard Herrmann.
After a long hiatus, Nostalgico is getting ready to record again, and in preparation for the studio the nine-piece ensemble performs Sunday at the Berkeley Art Festival performance space on University. Featuring some of the finest musicians in the region, including woodwind experts Phillip Greenlief and Sheldon Brown, trumpeter Chris Grady, and violinist Catharine Clune, the band is delving into Herrman’s scores for Vertigo and Psycho, Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon A Time In the West, and a suite of John Berry themes for James Bond films.
“What’s so great about this music is that Herrmann and Morricone, they’re not doing that thing where they’re just trying to pump up whatever emotional content that’s on screen,” says Nostalgico drummer John Hanes, a long-time Berkeley resident who plays in a dauntingly diverse array of settings. “There’s a second narrative going on in the score. That’s what makes the music so interesting and playable.”
Treating the scores like jazz texts, Nostalgico puts its own stamp on the material while never losing sight of the music’s original mood. Judging by the band’s Garden of Memory performance last month at Chapel of the Chimes, the Nostalgico players are deeply engaged with the music, which sparked a good deal of inspired improvisation. With a little luck a new album will once again raise the group’s profile, which has foundered in recent years without a dedicated leader hustling for gigs.
“Everyone’s got so many irons in the fire,” says Nostalgico guitarist Steve Kirk, who has loosely taken the band’s reins in recent years.
Nostalgico is a spin off of the celebrated Bay Area ensemble Club Foot Orchestra, which earned widespread recognition in the 1980s with vivid original scores for classic silent films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, and Metropolis. Founded and run by trumpeter/composer Richard Marriott, Club Foot had developed into a fairly independent entity by the mid-90s when it landed a plum gig writing and recording scores for the CBS Saturday morning cartoon series The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat. Around the same time Club Foot cellist Matt Brubeck decided he wanted to arrange a series of pieces based on Nino Rota scores and landed a Monday night gig at the bustling Mission District nightspot Bruno’s.
Performing under the Club Foot name, the band quickly developed a “fervent following,” Kirk says. “The same people would show up every week to hear us play the same songs over and over again. We had the extraordinarily rare opportunity to play the same place every week, and that lasted for about a year and a half. That just doesn’t happen any more.”
In the middle of the run, Marriott prevailed upon the group, which had developed its own identity and repertoire, to adopt a new name and Orchestra Nostalgico was born. While Brubeck departed in the late 1990s, the band had no shortage of excellent arrangers who have continued to contribute new pieces. Nostalgico even has a program of tunes arranged for them by Nicola Piovani, the composer of scores for late Fellini films like Intervista and The Voice of the Moon.
“It’s very rare that you get a group together dedicated to this kind of music,” says Hanes, who also performs Sunday afternoon at Oakland’s Actual Café with maverick Berkeley guitarist John Schott and bassist Dan Seamans. “The thing about the Rota’s stuff is that a lot of it references very traditional forms. You have a lot of tangos and swing feel passages, and of course he does all kinds of interesting melodic and harmonic things. Ultimately, the music is just a lot of fun to play.”
One of my favorite albums of the year so far is The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake by the Martha Redbone Roots Project, which performs at the Freight on Wednesday. A tremendously soulful singer of Choctaw, Cherokee, and African American descent who is steeped in the music of Appalachia, Redbone has set the mystical verse of Blake to the earthy grooves of blues inflected by Native American cadences. The album was co-produced by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen, and the band features Redbone’s husband and longtime collaborator Aaron Whitby on keys and melodica, Alan Burroughs on guitar and vocals, Teddy Kumpel on guitar, banjo, loops, and vocals, and George Rush on upright bass and vocals.
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.
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