Sparkler, or a Berkeley High reunion at the Freight?

Sparkler
Peter Apfelbaum “has essentially assembled a Yellow Jacket conclave with his new electronica-laced band Sparkler,” playing at The Freight on Monday, July 6. Photo: Sparkler

Did you hear about Monday’s Berkeley High reunion at Freight & Salvage? It’s listed on the club’s calendar as a double bill pairing Peter Apfelbaum’s Sparkler and Natalie Cressman’s band, but the indefatigably creative Apfelbaum has essentially assembled a Yellow Jacket conclave with his new electronica-laced band, which features a multi-generational cast of Berkeley High grads and a couple of ringers from nearby. The group released an EP of shimmering dance music last year, I Colored It In For You (M.O.D. Technologies), which includes a remix by bassist and studio wizard Bill Laswell.

For the Freight show Will Bernard, class of 1977, is out from New York with Apfelbaum to provide relentlessly grooving rhythm guitar. East Bay-based Erika Oba, class of 2004, is filling in for the band’s regular keyboardist, while Brooklyn’s Charlie Ferguson, class of 2006, is covering the drum chair (he brings his stellar Afrobeat band Zongo Junction to The New Parish on Aug. 7 with bassist Noah Garabedian, another Berkeley-to-Brooklyn classmate).

“We have this whole reservoir of musicians,” says Apfelbaum, who belongs to the first generation that came through the groundbreaking jazz-steeped BUSD music education program that Herb Wong introduced in the late 1960s. “And not just in jazz. There are so many different style that these musicians play. Charlie had already studied with Josh Jones for three years while at Berkeley High before he studied with me at the New School. I’ll show him some rhythmic figure and he does his own thing with it. I don’t need explain a lot.”

Natalie Cressman
Natalie Cressman: on stage at The Freight Monday, July 6

Rounding out Sparkler are two young women who came through the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars. A rising force as a player and bandleader, alto saxophonist/vocalist Jill Ryan grew up in Novato, studied at the Jazzschool, and is now enrolled at the New School in New York City. San Francisco-reared trombonist/vocalist Natalie Cressman, who’s doing double duty in Sparkler and leading her own genre-smashing quintet, is already a seasoned road musician, having toured widely with Phish’s Trey Anastasio. Apfelbaum designed Sparkler around the women’s ability to move effortlessly between vocals and horn parts.


“I really wanted to have a group focus on vocals, and I love the combination of alto and trombone,” says Apfelbaum, 55, who’s best known as a tenor saxophonist, but is also an accomplished percussionist and pianist. “I thought I’d let them be the front line. On the recordings I play some horn, but I wanted my role to be the bass player, so I play piano and keyboard bass through a Korg organ run through a bass amp. I wanted it to have a much heavier and fuller bass sound than even in Hieroglyphics.”

Apfelbaum has known Cressman, the daughter of Santana trombonist Jeff Cressman and Brazil-steeped vocalist Sandy Cressman, since birth, and become a primary mentor once she got serious about music in high school. Gigging around the Bay Area as a teenager, she played with top Bay Area Latin bands such as Edgardo Cambon y Orquestra Candela and Pete Escovedo’s Latin Jazz Orchestra. When she moved to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music, Apfelbaum started hiring her for his world jazz ensemble New York Hieroglyphics (which continues to draw on a core of Berkeley High players despite its East Coast identity).

Cressman revealed her vocal abilities on her 2012 debut Unfolding, an album on which Apfelbaum performed as a special guest. She followed up in 2013 with Turn the Sea, a program of luscious original songs expanding her singular synthesis of Cuban, Brazilian and West African music, indie rock, funk and the post-bop idioms. She opens Monday’s show with the latest version of her band featuring trumpeter Ivan Jackson, guitarist Mike Bono, bassist Jonathan Stein, and drummer Michael Mitchell.

While she sings and plays trombone in her own band, Cressman feels that Sparkler offers “a really unique interpretation with Peter playing the organ bass,” says Cressman, who also plays a duo show Friday with Bono at San Francisco’s Red Poppy Art House. “One of his skills is his independence, playing piano and holding down the funkiest bass lines. Peter likes to write these things where the lyrics are punctuated by horn parts. His lyrics are so creative and coming from a youthful, playful place.”

Though Apfelbaum spends a fare amount of time in Berkeley, he hasn’t performed with his own group here for several years. His Bay Area gigs have mostly found him in the bands of brilliant Cuban musicians like drummer Dafnis Prieto and pianist Omar Sosa. He launched Sparkler as a vehicle for sophisticated dance music “that would be colorful and interesting and keep changing,” he says.


“Going back to the early 80s when I first heard Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’ and Sound-System, which Bill Laswell produced, I’ve been interested in dance music that goes through different scenery like a train, developing from one thing to the next. It goes with my patchwork-quilt way of working. We don’t do the head-solo-head thing that much. I wanted to have a drummer who could move away from a traditional drum kit and play samples, loops and electronic sounds, so on the album it’s Aaron Johnston, who plays with Brazilian Girls.”

Part of what makes Sparkler so fun is the found-object nature of the lyrics. Though Apfelbaum enjoys writing poetry, setting words he’s written to music has always proven frustrating. But as a touring musician he’s found inspiration by paying attention to conversations happening around him in clubs, airports, and restaurants. Rather than working with traditional song forms, he’s incorporated lines gleaned from various overheard sources, lyrics that Cressman and Ryan deliver between horn riffs.

He came up with the words for “The Right Colors” while listening to a call-in program on WNYC providing guidance for couples on improving their relationships. “A woman called in and said my boyfriend is great, but his wardrobe really needs help,” Apfelbaum says. “So I wrote this song that Jill and Natalie do almost as a speed rap, singing ‘Let’s go out and find new colors for you.’”

He also found inspiration in the uproarious throat singing tradition practiced by Inuit women. Jeff Cressman, who is also a respected audio engineer, played him a recording made a few years ago at Keith Terry’s International Body Music Festival featuring Nunavuit, Canada’s Celina Kalluk and Lucie Idlout, who sing into each other’s mouths until the performance dissolves in their peals of laughter.

“Hearing the recording of that sparked something,” Apfelbaum says. “We started to do pieces where Natalie and Jill would try alternating words in a phrase, where one would sing a phrase and the other would pick up the last word, almost like conversational interruptions. They do rapid fire, complex rhythmic stuff vocals like someone taking a djembe solo.”


While he’s in town Apfelbaum is also recording with Sparkler, contributing a track on a compilation album produced by drummer Jeff Weinmann, a friend from their days in grade school. Weinmann got his start in the early 1970s playing rock ‘n’ roll with the Cadillac Kids at Willard Junior High, and went on to study in Boston with legendary jazz drummer Alan Dawson (while earning a degree in vocal performance from New England Conservatory).

He recently retired from teaching music in Union City and wanted to reconnect with his Berkeley music friends, which led to his almost completed album Alma Matters. Apfelbaum and the entire Cressman clan are at the center of the project, which also features tracks with Josh Jones, Elena and Samora Pinderhughes, Paul Hanson, Rachel Durling, and Erik Jekabson. Aside from an original tune by Sparkler, the album features Apfelbaum’s brass arrangement of the spiritual “Wade In the Water” featuring trumpeter Steven Bernstein, altoist Jill Ryan, Marcus Rojas on tube, and the vocals of Destani Wolf and Terrance Kelly.

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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