Guitarist George Cotsirilos: A nighthawk flies in Berkeley

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Long-time Berkeley resident George Cotsirilos is one of most tasteful and dependably swinging jazz guitarists on the Bay Area scene. Photo by Billy Douglas.

Chicago-reared George Cotsirilos arrived in Berkeley in 1969 as an aspiring young guitarist deeply under the sway of the three blues Kings (B.B., Albert, and Freddie). In the midst of his undergrad studies at Cal he took some time off to play with a blues band in Ann Arbor, and when he re-enrolled to continue his sociology studies he came under the sway of legendary East Bay guitar teacher Warren Nunes, who turned his attention to jazz and “opened up other vistas,” Cotsirilos says.

These days the long-time Berkeley resident is one of most tasteful and dependably swinging jazz guitarists on the Bay Area scene, and the leader of a lithe and quietly dramatic trio with bassist Robb Fisher and drummer Ron Marabuto. The group performs at Jupiter on Wednesday night.

Over the years Cotsirilos has worked with heavyweights in jazz and R&B, from tenor saxophone titan Pharaoh Sanders and bassist Chuck Israels to Etta James and The Whispers, the popular Los Angeles vocal group that scored a string of hits in the 1970s and 80s. He confirmed his status as an elite Bay Area player through his work with drum maestro Eddie Marshall, first in a quartet with pianist Paul Nagel in the 1980s, and then later in the San Francisco Nighthawks, a quintet with Robb Fisher that performed often at Jazz at Pearl’s.

A longtime Berkeleyan, Fisher spent years on the road with Latin jazz vibraphonist Cal Tjader, and played an essential role on Tjader’s Grammy Award-winning 1980 album La Onda Va Bien (Concord Jazz). Cotsirilos created the trio with Fisher and Marabuto about a decade ago, and quickly documented the band on his critically praised 2006 album On the Rebop (OA2 Records).


Conceptually, Cotsirilos based the highly interactive ensemble on seminal piano trios, particularly Bill Evans‘ hugely influential combo with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. “Robb and I have played together for many years and we’re very good friends,” Cotsirilos says. “He’s a very creative, thoughtful and swinging player who bringing his own sensibility to the LaFaro mold. Ron keeps the pulse and he’s wonderfully creative too. With these guys what you get is not a guitar trio, but a trio with three equally important voices. That’s what interested me, a trio that’s not two instruments backing another one but three independent voices. That’s a hard thing to come by.”

The trio released its third album for OA2 Records in 2013, Variations , a session focusing on Cotsirilos originals (and a gorgeous version of Ivan Lins “Doce Presneca” and Johnny Burke/Jimmy Van Heusen’s “But Beautiful”). His tunes match his lightly tangy tone, clean and elegant, with a hint of grit.

“I try to come up with originals as much as I can,” he says. “Robb contributes too. I’ve got a 50-percent attrition rate. I’ll come up with one, and after some reflection realize it’s no good. Rejuvenating standards is important too. It’s one of the great things to do in jazz, play standards in a way that’s fresh and interesting.”

Cotsirilos also performs at Café Claude on Oct. 3 and 23rd, and the Albatross on Oct. 24.

Recommended gigs: Larry Ochs, Stephane Bruce

Berkeley saxophonist Larry Ochs is best known as a founding member of the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, an indomitable force in improvised music since the mid-1970s. But he’s always maintained various side projects, and one of his most recent is a volatile trio with trumpeter Darren Johnston and percussionist Gino Robair, which performs 8 p.m. Friday at Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists as part of Jazz in the Neighborhood. Expect fireworks.


And 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon veteran jazz vocalist and songwriter Stephanie Bruce performs at the California Jazz Conservatory, where she’s on faculty in the vocal program. She’s a subtle and expressive singer who’s working out material for her upcoming fourth album. She’s joined by a top-shelf band featuring pianist Jonathan Alford, bassist Fred Randolph, and drummer Curt Moore.

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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