Erik Jekabson Quintet in Berkeley: Let the good times roll

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Trumpeter Erik Jekabson, a Berkeley High alum, plays with his quintet in Berkeley Saturday. Photo: Erik Jekabson

Normally, lightning striking twice in the Berkeley Hills would be a cause for concern, but when trumpeter Erik Jekabson is the force responsible for the conflagration, it’s an invitation to let the good times roll.

The Berkeley High alum wasn’t expecting to record a live album when he brought his talent-laden quintet featuring percussion star John Santos to the Hillside Club back in 2011. Thrilled at the opportunity to collaborate with Santos, he wrote and arranged a passel of new music, and when he listened to the recording of the concert months later he was so pleased that decided to make it available on the CD Live at the Hillside Club.

Featuring bassist John Wiitala, drummer Smith Dobson V, and pianist Grant Levin, Jekabson’s quintet returns to the intimate venue Saturday to celebrate the new album’s release (the group also plays the Jazzschool on April 18).

A grant from San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music helped Jekabson pay the musicians a recording session rate, but he hails the Hillside Club’s music director Bruce Koball with making the CD possible by putting in many hours of post-production work.


“Bruce records everything at the Hillside, and he does it really well,” Jekabson says. “After he sent me the music I picked through the rough mixes and gave them out as Christmas presents. The more I listened to it, the more I realized how good the band sounded. Bruce was incredibly generous and spent a lot of time with me getting the right mix. I definitely wasn’t intending to make a record, which is good, because it’s easy to get uptight when you know you’re recording.”

Wiitala and Dobson have provided the rhythmic foundation for Jekabson for years, performing on his impressive 2009 album Crescent Boulevard and his brilliant 2011 project with strings Anti-Mass. Levin is a recent addition to the band, taking over a spot previously covered by guitarist Mike Abraham. Jekabson met Santos several years ago when they were both on faculty at JazzCamp West, and was pleasantly surprised when the Oakland percussionist gamely agreed to join him for a series of gigs.

Santos, who recently finished a two-year tenure as a resident artistic director at the SFJAZZ Center, is one of the Bay Area’s most eminent musicians. He’s recorded with a vast cross-section of legendary Latin American player and jazz musician, including numerous projects on his own label Machete Records. Last year the Grammy-winning Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra directed by Arturo O’Farrill dedicated two nights to performing his compositions at New York City’s Symphony Space. With so many of his own projects going, Santos doesn’t have many opportunities to play in a relatively straight ahead jazz settings, and he thrives in Jekabson’s band.

“John is the nicest guy, and really conscientious about learning the music,” Jekabson says. “You can tell it’s the bandleader in him. There are some tunes he’s really playing the congas more, more of a salsa thing. But a lot of the time he’s totally free to do whatever he wants. He can play so many different styles. His ears are so huge, he finds the spot to add whatever’s necessary.”

For the quintet’s April 18 date at the Jazzschool, where Jekabson’s on faculty, he’s featuring his advanced high school students as the opening act (and bringing them back on to play with the quintet at the end of the show). In steady demand as a collaborator, Jekabson performs at Yoshi’s on March 24 with saxophonist Michael O’Neill and vocalist Kenny Washington’s sextet, which is celebrating the release of a new album. He and saxophonist Dave Ellis, a fellow Berkeley High alum, also perform as special guests with the Berkeley High Jazz Ensembles at Freight & Salvage on April 23.


“I sent some big band charts of mine and we’ll be guest alumni artists for that concert,” Jekabson says. “It’s a chance to work with all those up and coming kids, though I already work with a lot of them at the Jazzschool.

I’m coaching one group of all Berkeley High sophomores. They’re very talented and have a good attitude. The tradition is really continuing with the support from parents and Sarah Cline.”

Recommended gig:

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Missing Man Quartet

Albany mandolin expert Tom Bekeny is best known as a long-time collaborator with bluegrass great Kathy Kallick, but he’s also a fine jazz player who recently released the CD Jazzolin with bassist Dan Feiszli and drummer Jon Arkin. He performs Saturday at Caffe Trieste with the drummer-less Missing Man Quartet, a trio featuring bassist Craig Griffeath and guitarist Steve Gallagher. They’ll be joined by the fine jazz/folk singer Connie Doolan.

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. He lives in West Berkeley.

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