If one measure of a music scene’s vitality is the involvement of young musicians committed to making their own mark, the Bay Area is looking hale and hearty. In many cases, an artistic inclination is a family affair, and over the next week Freight & Salvage hosts an array of stellar young players reared in musical households.
On Monday, trombonist, vocalist and songwriter Natalie Cressman performs with a quartet celebrating the release of her beautiful Joni Mitchell-inflected album Turn the Sea. And on Saturday, Aug. 24, the Freight marks its 45th anniversary with Generations, a quadruple bill assembled by Berkeley fiddler/vocalist Suzy Thompson, who performs with her husband, guitar great Eric Thompson, and daughter Allegra, a bassist and vocalist who’s making a name for herself on the old-time scene with the Drifter Sisters.
The Berkeley-heavy Generations program also features the Celtic-Americana duo of Mike and daughter Leah Wollenberg (on guitar and fiddle, respectively), and lutist Alan and violinist/vocalist Aya Davidson, the father and daughter who play traditional Greek music in Agapi Mou, which has performed regularly around the area over the past three years at the Zaki Kabob House, Garden Gate Creativity Center, and the Starry Plough’s Balkan Bacchanal series. Rounding out the program is the Mission District’s Tex-Mex and folkloric Colombian combo La Familia Peña-Govea featuring multi-instrumentalists Miguel Govea and Susan Peña and daughter Rene on button accordion and vocals.
“We’ve known Aya Davidson since she was born, and Rene Peña-Govea for many years,” Suzy Thompson said. “Both of those girls have been playing really well for a long time. Rene has become a real musical force, and Aya is just a beautiful singer.”
Conceived by the Freight’s director of development Susan Lefkowich (full disclosure: we’re distantly related through marriage), the Generations concert highlights the way that traditional forms get “passed down and then young people reinterpret and put their own spin on them,” Lefkowich said. “I was looking at the anniversary coming up and thinking about the generations of people who have come through the Freight. And not just families, but these relationships between mentors and mentees. That’s how it came about, thinking about our mission, about how we pass along tradition.”
While San Francisco-raised Cressman isn’t part of the Generations program, she embodies the way that music is a living legacy. The daughter of Sandy Cressman, a gifted jazz singer known for her expansive repertoire of Brazilian songs, and Jeff Cressman, a respected recording engineer and longtime Santana trombonist, she’s already a seasoned professional who spent the past three years balancing undergrad studies at Manhattan School of Music with horn and backup vocal duties touring with Phish’s Trey Anastasio.
Now living in New York City, Cressman consciously embraces her parents as creative role models, a communion that has shaped her expansive sensibility. “I always responded to the way they wore many hats, the way they follow through on the specifics of different traditions,” Cressman said, speaking by Skype from Vienna, where she was on a family vacation.
She released an acclaimed debut album Unfolding last year, an impressive session that alternated between her lustrous vocals and instrumental tracks showcasing her burnished sound on trombone. With Turn the Sea Cressman has delivered a very different statement working with jazz peers to create lush pop settings for her melodically sophisticated tunes (as well as Bon Iver’s “Blindsided” and Hanne Hukkelberg’s “Do Not As I Do”). The album’s intimate sound resulted from her collaboration with her father, who mixed the project.
“He’s an incredible engineer and when I told him I wanted it to sound like Norah Jones’ new album produced by Danger Mouse I was pleasantly surprised he was already hip to all the references I was giving him,” Cressman said. “We were both exploring new territory in what we do, and passing the mixes back and forth across the country was great way to stay in touch from afar.”
In much the same way that technology facilitated Cressman’s collaboration with her father, Allegra Thompson owes her present musical path to a digital hand-me-down. While she grew up immersed in roots and old-time styles “until three years ago she didn’t want to have anything to do with our kind of music,” Suzy Thompson said. “When she was growing up what she really liked was 20th century classical, Philip Glass, Benjamin Britten and all this very highbrow music that couldn’t have been any farther away from what we were doing.
“That was a disappointment. Our party line when people asked was that she was growing up around all this different music and if she ever wanted to get into it she would know where to find it. While we said it we didn’t believe it, but it turned out to be true.”
The vehicle of musical seduction was an old computer that Suzy handed down to Allegra with a veritable library of Delta blues, Cajun tunes, old-time standards, and field recordings. “I suddenly had 5,000 tracks of old sources recording, pre-war blues, and live recordings my parents played on,” she says. “I put my iTunes on shuffle, and got really into early female blues singers.”
She started playing guitar to accompany herself, and before long met a Berkeley neighbor, fiddler Robin Fischer, who shared her love of bluegrass and George Jones. With the addition of Hailey Pexton on guitar, Thompson devoted herself to stand up bass, which gave rise to the Drifter Sisters, who celebrate the release of their first album, Songs From A Smokey Barroom at the Starry Plough on Aug. 30 as part of a night celebrating George Jones.
For the rare Thompson family performance at the Freight on Aug. 24, the trio is working up some lighthearted blues (“He May Be Your Dog But He’s Wearing My Collar”), some fiddle rags, a Puerto Rican jibaro number, and a handful of Suzy’s originals.
“I’m not really a songwriter,” she said. “It’s not my main thing. But a long time ago I wrote ‘Very Bad Mood,’ something every mother and daughter will be able to relate to. It’s great to arrange these blues songs that are usually sung by one person. We’ve worked out some call and response and harmony things. Allegra sang in San Francisco Girls Chorus, and it’s been really fun to work out these vocal things with her.”
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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