Getting low with Cornelius Boots and Joëlle Léandre

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Cornelius Boots (l) and Mark Deutsch, who play Saturday in Berkeley. Photo: courtesy Cornelius Boots

From his earliest stirrings as a musician, Cornelius Boots has always gravitated to low, rumbling tones. Since moving to the Bay Area about 12 years ago, he’s created a series of darkly dramatic ensembles, such as Edmund Wells, an unprecedented bass clarinet quartet, and the texture-minded duo Sabbaticus Rex.

In recent years, Boots has focused on mastering an array of bass shakuhachis, and he celebrates the release of his quietly enthralling album Mountain Hermit’s Secret Wisdom with a solo recital 8 p.m. Saturday as part of the Trinity Concert Concerts series, at the Trinity Chapel, 2320 Dana St. The “Heart and Blood” concert is a double bill with a Boots’ frequent collaborator, Mark Deutsch, who performs on his patented Bazantar, an upright five-string contrabass with dozens of sympathetic strings. He invented the instrument to accommodate his passion for new music, free improvisation and North Indian classical music.

“Mark is very much the mad genius archetype,” says Boots, who lives in Marin’s San Geronimo Valley. “He’s always changing the Bazantar’s tuning system and adding strings. It’s always on the drawing board, partly to keep himself guessing. He was the bass virtuoso guy in St. Louis, playing new music, free improv and jazz. And then he started studying sitar.”

Boots is no stranger to Berkeley’s intimate and pleasingly resonant Trinity Chapel. He’s performed there a few years ago with Sabbaticus Rex, his soundscape oriented project with percussionist Karen Stackpole. That concert included several spaces for solo shakuhachi, a practice he’s also brought to Berkeley Rose Labyrinth.


As part of his Zen discipline, Boots has mastered the 36 traditional shakuhachi pieces originally played by wandering monks, meditation exercises gathered and codified in the 18th century by Kinko Kurosaw. As a composer who has written for various ensembles, Boots decided to writer several pieces of his own in the same vein designed for the low-end Taimu shakuhachi.

“There are some that do get pretty high energy imitating nature, nesting of the crane, the waterfall, falling leaves,” Boots says. “The pieces for big flutes are like long-tone exercises, but some sects play even high energy pieces that way. It’s like Zen itself, you can’t say meditation is just contemplative energy. I wanted to write some of these long tone things for the big flutes. I try to really have the instrument dictate to me what it likes.”

He recorded Mountain Hermit’s Secret Wisdom in an abandoned gold mine outside of Grass Valley, deep enough in that no light was visible. “It feels like you’re inside a flute,” Boots says. “The low and middle notes resonate really well. With the shakuhachi the appeal is often to go outside and play. But outside you find that the notes don’t really come back to you. You’re always playing high notes to get some echo. That’s not a problem in the Trinity Chapel.”

Recommended gigs: Joëlle Léandre and Phillip Greenlief

Joëlle Léandre: plays the Berkeley Arts Festival on Thursday

Low notes and extended techniques will also feature prominently at the Berkeley Arts Festival space 9 p.m. Thursday when contrabass legend Joëlle Léandre performs with Oakland saxophonist Phillip Greenlief (Lebanese trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj plays a solo opening set at 8 p.m.). Léandre gave a potent reminder of her improvisational prowess last Saturday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ New Frequencies Fest, when she played a thrilling trio set with flutist Nicole Mitchell and Berkeley pianist Myra Melford (who curated New Frequencies).

She and Greenlief worked together extensively back in 2002 when she was on faculty at Mills College, and released a duo project That Overt Desire of Object on Relative Pitch in 2009. Léandre returns to the Berkeley Arts space on Monday for a duo performance with violinist India Cooke, an often riveting improviser who has collaborated with some of jazz’s most adventurous spirits, from Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor to Julius Hemphill and George Lewis.


Léandre’s background ranges through a vast swath of music, from the classical repertoire to performing the works of contemporary composers like John Cage, Stauckhausen, Berlioz and Xanakis. Raised in Aix-en-Provence, she started studying bass at nine and graduated from the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris, taking top honors for double bass.

In 1976 she received a scholarship to the Center for Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo, where she was deeply influenced by encounters with composers Morton Feldman, Giacinto Scelsi and particularly John Cage, who she has called her “spiritual father.” At the same time, she immersed herself in the downtown New York music scene and began exploring improvised music, integrating the sounds of Mingus, Monk, Dolphy, guitarist Derek Bailey, pianist Irène Schweizer, and reed player/composer Anthony Braxton.

“I stopped playing classical music, but I have that here in my body,” she said during an interview at Mills. “If I want to express something, velocity, or even virtuosity, why not? It’s good to know your tool. I’m not a jazz player but I love this music. I understood the attitude of jazz, and the scream, the spirituality, the risk and urgency of free jazz. I think life is urgent.”

Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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