Whether she’s improvising fearlessly on stage, teaching a master class, or raising organic produce on her farm in Hawaii, Rhiannon wants to change the world.
A legendary figure among vocalists who helped found Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra, the former Berkeley resident returns for an all too infrequent run of engagements over the coming week, an array of events that offer rare insight into this singular and widely influential artist. On Saturday she celebrates the release of her memoir Vocal River at the Jazzschool with a discussion and performance (she also teaches a Jazzschool master class Sunday morning). On Monday she’s performing at the Jazzschool’s 5th Annual Mark Murphy Scholarship Concert, joining a glittering cast of jazz vocalists at Yoshi’s including Clairdee, Nicholas Bearde, Jackie Ryan and Laurie Antonioli. And on Nov. 25 she performs at Freight & Salvage with the WeBe3, an improvisational vocal trio with Joey Blake and David Worm.
“Saturday at the Jazzschool is really a book event,” Rhiannon said in a recent phone conversation from her farm on the Big Island. “I’ve been having a great time. I sit at the piano and play. People get to ask me questions. It’s a very interactive hands-on session.”
She’s thrilled that the timing of her trip back to the Bay Area allows her to participate in the Mark Murphy scholarship concert, which supports advanced jazz vocal students at the Jazzschool. She got close to Murphy, who’s still performing at 81, back in the early 1980s when they were both on faculty at JazzCamp West.
“We’re both gay and struck up an instant friendship,” she recalled. “He carried so much wisdom about music. I thought he was the bomb. He can improvise so smart and quick, but he can also slow it way down and give a reading of a ballad that’s so authentic and real. Over the years we’ve often met up on the road and we’d have an evening together. He’s one of the great singers of jazz.”
Rhiannon, Blake and Worm first started singing together in McFerrin’s improvisational choir Voicestra, and then went on to found the vocal ensemble SoVoSó. As a spin off of a spin off, WeBe3 has honed a highly effective performance style that combines intricate scatting with Rhiannon’s gift for lyrical invention.
“About half of the pieces have lyric content, but whatever we’re doing we make it feel like there’s a song going on. We’ve got chord progressions and rhythmic concepts, and with my background in theater I bring a lot of words. We haven’t played in the Bay Area for a while, so we’re going to make it a hometown reunion evening, with Julia Wolf sitting in,” Rhiannon said, referring to the Oakland multi-instrumentalist and composer who tours with the Indigo Girls.
After many years living in West Berkeley, Rhiannon spent her last two decades in the Bay Area in Pt. Reyes watching the explosion of organic farming first hand. When she and her partner Jan saw the opportunity to buy a farm in Hawaii they made the move five years ago. Located on the Hilo side of the Big Island, the 10-acre Leo Nani Farm is still very much a work in progress. They’re raising ducks, chickens and two cows while growing a delectable array of tropical fruits. They’ve also planted 100 cocoa trees, turmeric, vanilla and green tea that will be ready for harvest in the coming years.
“All of that came as a result of living in Pt. Reyes all those years,” Rhiannon said. “The whole community got very involved in educating each other in organic and sustainable farming. When we moved here we had a lot of concepts on organics, but then it’s a completely different thing, with almost 200 inches of rain a year.”
Ultimately Rhiannon seeks to turn the farm into an art center with a studio for intimate performances and workshops and cabins for hosting artists-in-residence that will continue to operate as a farm even when she’s no longer doing the hands-on labor.
“The three people who live here are all in our 60s, and we’re looking for a young couple, hopefully with children, to be the next generation here,” she said. “It’s such a great place to bring people for improvisation. The spontaneity of the land here on the Big Island, with the weather and the volcano, it gets people opened up. I’ve been coming here a long time, and then here was this farm for sale at just the right moment. It was a spontenious decision.”
In many ways the move to Hawaii completes a circle for Rhiannon, who was born and raised on a Nebraska farm near the South Dakota border. Rhiannon credits her parents and the Benedictine nuns at her Catholic school with providing “a very beautiful musical education. Those nuns told me it was possible to be an artist,” she said.
Initially interested in theater, she earned a BFA from Cornell and then made the move to New York City. She was powerfully drawn to jazz, particularly the music of Miles Davis, but didn’t immerse herself in the music as a performer until moving to the Bay Area in 1973. She studied music theory at Merritt College, and spent a lot of time with bassists and horn players studying their melodic lines. And she haunted Keystone Korner.
“I went every night. The guys at the door would often let musicians in free. I saw Betty Carter very early on, and she just blew my mind. The way she related physically to the band, she didn’t stand in front, she was right there next to the bassist and wanted to hear everything. She also had her own record label, and I thought, there is another way to do this,” she said, noting that she’s released her last five albums on her label RhiannonMusic.
Drawn to the increasingly organized women’s music scene, she found a lot of great music and kindred spirits but no jazz. While attending a workshop by pianist Michelle Rosewoman in a basement in the Haight she hooked up with three other aspiring female jazz musicians, which led directly to the creation of Alive! With Bill Evans’ former manager Helen Keane booking the ensemble they toured and performed widely and recorded three albums, “but whenever we did interviews we always ended up spending a lot of time answering questions about why there weren’t any men in the band,” she said. “Which was sad, because there was a lot to say about the music.”
Around the time the band’s decade-long run was coming to an end, she got a call from Bobby McFerrin, who had catapulted from the Bay Area scene into national prominence with the release of his eponymous 1982 debut album on Elektra. Looking to create a vocal ensemble capable of expanding on the vocal techniques he’d been investigating, McFerrin hired her for the first incarnation of Voicestra, an ensemble she continues to perform with. In addition to WeBe3, she also performs under her own name with Spontenious, her powerhouse band featuring Peruvian-born drummer Alex Acuña, Mexican-born bassist Abraham Laboriel, and Venezuelan-born pianist Otmaro Ruiz, three of Los Angeles’s most sought after studio musicians.
A riveting performer, Rhiannon may have made her biggest impact as a teacher. She’s offered classes, workshops and seminars in a wide array of settings, including Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where she recently spent several years on faculty before deciding that she no longer wanted to deal with the commute from Hawaii. She draws on her vast store of bandstand experience, particularly the lessons gleaned from her years with McFerrin.
“In order for improvisation to be appealing, it needs to have a really interesting rhythmic base and melodic content,” Rhiannon said. “In my teaching I really integrate rhythm and melody, and that’s been the stuff of the last 30 years.”
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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