A reoccurring gig is rare enough to inspire a musician’s gratitude these days, but Berkeley bassist/composer Kurt Ribak feels particularly fortunate that he’s playing at Jupiter in downtown Berkeley every Tuesday in September.
Still on the mend after a cataclysmic car crash 14 months ago, he’s painstakingly toiled to regain full use of his left arm. The Jupiter residency offers an invaluable opportunity to put his reconstructed hand to work and to connect with some longtime collaborators before his ninth round of major surgery in October takes him off the scene again for some weeks.
“It’s been a real challenge,” says Ribak, who also performs Sept. 4 at the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space with the volatile Reckoning Quartet , and Sept 14 at the Albatross with drummer Bryan Bowman, keyboardist Greg Sankovich and his Times 4 bandmate Lincoln Adler on tenor saxophone. “I want to do as much playing as I can for my spirit and to remind my body of what it can do.”
For his month-long Jupiter “Tuesday Jazzidency” Ribak is joined each week by Sankovich and Adler (except for Sept. 17, when Tom Griesser takes over the saxophone chair). Various drummers round out the quartet, including Rob Hart this Tuesday, Matt Willis on Sept. 10, and Randy Odell on Sept. 17 and 24.
Just like for an athlete, a physical injury can permanently derail a musician’s career, a disquieting reality that can make everyday chores nerve wracking. Ribak was driving east on Cedar on the morning of June 19, 2012 when a northbound car blew through the stop sign at 8th Street and broadsided him, flipping his truck on its side and mangling his left arm. The proximity of Berkeley Fire Department’s Station Six meant help arrived almost immediately.
“They had to cut me out of my truck and I was conscious through the whole ambulance ride out to Highland Hospital, which I don’t recommend,” says Ribak (whose name is pronounced REE-bok). “I remember thinking, one of the biggest nightmares of my life just came true. I pleaded to everyone to save my arm and hand. It’s not just my livelihood. It’s my identity, how I interact in the world.”
Raised in Berkeley, Ribak is the son of parents who met as undergrads at Cal. They weren’t particularly musical, but there are musicians in the family tree, along with several artists (such as the Watts Towers’ Simon Rodia, from whom Ribak drew the name of his label Rodia Records). He sang in the San Francisco Boys’ Chorus growing up, including performances with the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera.
Studying cello, he immersed himself in the European classical tradition, but by the time he started attending Cal he was devoting more and more time to the bass. Drawn to jazz, he felt a particular affinity for the great bassist, composer and bandleader Charles Mingus.
“I think everybody is trying to figure out where their voice is, where it fits,” he says. “I listen to and play a lot of styles, but for me jazz was the place, especially playing my own music.”
Itching to leave the Bay Area, he earned several scholarship to study at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and graduated with top honors after countless hours studying the recordings of bass masters like Paul Chambers and Ray Brown, and the insistently grooving funk of Fela Kuti and James Brown. While the experience provided tremendous musical stimulation, he found himself drawn back to California.
“Every night I would dream of the Bay Area,” he recalls. “I had heard about how similar Boston is to the Bay Area, and you see a lot of the same people, the academics, the political activist who scoops ice cream. But I didn’t really take to Boston.”
He returned to the Bay Area at a time when the scene was being invigorated by a new wave of young players from Berkeley High, and East Coast transplants like drummer Scott Amenolda, a contemporary of Ribak’s at Berklee. He started to find his voice as a composer in Section Eight Project, a quintet that he co-led with saxophonist Tom Griesser.
Good bassists are always in demand, and with his gift for melodic invention and huge warm sound Ribak worked steadily as a sideman in all the usual jazz contexts, as well as accompanying circus performers, worshipers in church, and fire-breathing strippers (“these were separate establishments,” he notes).
He gradually developed his own musical identity as a bandleader and composer, and eventually released his debut recording under his own name with 2005’s Kurt Ribak Trio, a session that documents an infectiously engaging group sound that he describes as “Charles Mingus meets the Meters.” He followed up with two equally impressive sessions, 2007’s More, and 2008’s Gone, and was on the verge of recording a fourth album when the car crash took him out of action.
“I couldn’t play at all for several months,” Ribak says. “I was urged to try, and I could play a note here or there. I tried with electric bass, which is presumably easier, but my wrist couldn’t bend enough. It’s been a year of confronting the monster. Rehab has been my main activity.
His deep Berkeley roots and many years of pouring his soul into the music of his colleagues inspired a powerful response, and he’s been buoyed by an outpouring of support from the community, visits, transportation to hospitals, and some stop-gap financial help.
“Not only fellow musicians, but people who knew me from what I’ve done over the years,” Ribak says. “When I’m playing I’m trying to connect with people, and I think that’s a big part of why people have been so supportive. I don’t know if I would have had the strength if people weren’t helping and wanting this to happen. People talk about it takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village for someone to heal.”
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.
Berkeleyside’s Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas is two days of provocative thinking, inspiring speakers, workshops, and a big party — all in downtown Berkeley in October. Be a part of it. Register on the Uncharted website.