Berkeley drummer John Hanes paid his blues dues at Larry Blake’s in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, a rigorous bandstand education in the fundamentals of laying down a sly Jimmy Reed shuffle and a searing John Lee Hooker boogie. His schooling in the crucible of Larry Blake’s “Rat Band” led to widespread work on the East Bay blues scene, and he attained the kind of authority that let him emerge at the end of a gig backing R&B legend Etta James without the salty tongue lashing she liberally bestowed on drummer’s faking the funk.
When he played with Berkeley jazz guitarist John Schott for the first time about a decade later Hanes immediately recognized a kindred rhythmic spirit. “It was a trio and Myles Boisen was playing a blues shuffle and John was playing rhythm guitar,” Hanes recalls. “I had experience playing with black blues players in Oakland, and when John started playing this blues he sounded correct. I thought oh my God, he really knows what he’s doing.”
They’ve been collaborating ever since, and kick off a West Coast tour celebrating the release of Schott’s new album Actual Trio (Tzadik) with Berkeley bassist Dan Seamans Friday at the Berkeley Arts Festival gallery and Sunday at San Francisco’s Red Poppy Art House. Schott created the group about four years ago when he acquired the musicians’ holy grail of a regular gig. The group still plays the first Sunday of every month at North Oakland’s Actual Café, and they’ve used the long-running residency to hone a loose-limbed approach drawing on postbop harmonies, graceful song forms, and quicksilver rhythmic shifts. It’s a stylistically encompassing sound that never sheds a blues sensibility.
“The electric guitar is inescapably drenched in the blues, and one of the things I love about playing with Hanes is that he takes the grooves associated with the blues very seriously,” Schott says. “I like that we have multiple reference points, and that a very deep blues tradition is one of a myriad of the components. I gravitated to working with him because John is a veteran of every kind of gig imaginable. He really brought to the project a grownup sagacity about how to put together a groove.”
Part of the pleasure provided by the Actual Trio is the way the three musicians engage with the tension between their dedication to the groove and the equally powerful impulse to chase the music in unexpected directions. It’s the push and pull of freedom and discipline, of body and mind, a balancing act that pivots on bassist Dan Seamans, who has anchored some of the most interesting and influential trios in recent memory. I first heard him some three decades ago in the New Klezmer Trio with clarinetist Ben Goldberg and drummer Kenny Wollesen, a group that combined the gutbucket free jazz of Ornette Coleman with the secular laments and dance music of Eastern European Jewry. More recently, Seamans has performed and recorded extensively with the Lost Trio, a collective ensemble with tenor saxophonist Phillip Greenlief and drummer Tom Hassett. When his Actual Trio bandmates skitter off the beaten path, Seamans keeps the music centered, even when he’s not sure where it’s going.
“John is pretty fearless and open to throwing away the safety net and saying let’s see what happens,” Seamans says. “He’s also really grounded in R&B and all kinds of roots music, and it’s been really great for me to be able to have a context to work on those kinds of things. John Hanes is a really great drummer for laying down a solid groove. If I can just lock in with him and focus on that, that’s really powerful.”
The trio could have landed an album release gig in any number of East Bay venues. The decision to play the Berkeley Arts Festival space is entirely in keeping with the ensemble’s deep local roots. Indeed, the project couldn’t be any more Berkeley. Recorded at Fantasy Studios, the album was produced by Berkeley’s Hans Wendl, a genial studio master who has shepherded essential albums by Charlie Haden, Don Byron, Ravi Shankar, Tin Hat, and Bill Frisell, among many others.
Actual Trio recorded with a grant from San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music, which also provided support for the Bay Area gigs (Schott and Hanes also perform Saturday at the 5th Annual Yerba Buena Night with Oakland trumpeter/vocalist Sarah Wilson’s Fusebox. Given Hanes’ vast and varied experience, it’s surprising to learn how much of a departure the Actual Trio is for him. Since the late 1970s he’s performed on more than 100 albums, including projects with experimental guitarist Henry Kaiser, the rock bands Chrome and Pearl Harbor and the Explosions, Camper Van Beethoven’s Victor Krummenacher, Ratdog’s Mark Karan, and the cinematically inspired Orchestra Nostalgico (he also played on Richard Thompson’s soundtrack to Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man).
While he’s performed in jazz settings for years, he didn’t feel like he had a personal approach to the idiom. Coming up as a rock musician who also played a lot of weddings and parties (what musicians call casuals), he quickly “learned how to make a jazz-like and a Latin-like sound off the rack, ready-made versions you can drop in to the appropriate situation,” he says. “Developing an authentic voice in this improvisational music really took an environment like this Actual Trio.”
In another example of the essential role that geography and proximity play in shaping artistic expression, Hanes and Schott were able to get together regularly to work on developing their approach to different material. Living a few blocks from each other “we can always find a couple of hours to get together and run his material, to play standards and do free improvisation,” Hanes says. “That process, plus the regular trio gigs, provided the opportunity to find my voice inside that jazz vocabulary, rather received ideas about that vocabulary. That’s why beyond anything else I’m so excited about this record. I can’t point to any other record that I’ve made and say that’s jazz.”
Recommended Gigs: Myra Melford at the Freight, Diana Gameros at La Peña
Berkeley pianist/composer Myra Melford performs with her dazzling ensemble Snowy Egret 8 p.m. Tuesday at Freight & Salvage. Featuring the supremely lyrical Ron Miles on cornet, guitarist Liberty Ellman, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar, and the remarkable drummer Tyshawn Sorey, Snowy Egret focuses on music from Melford’s recently released album of the same name, a project largely developed at Yerba Buena Center For the Arts and inspired by the three-volume history of the Americas by the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire. And on Sunday, Berkeley singer/songwriter Diana Gameros performs at La Peña on a double bill with the rapidly rising Gina Chavez, recently named Austin Musician of the Year.
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.
Musician Meklit Hadero and comedian W. Kamau Bell are just two of the many performers and speakers who will entertain us at the third annual Uncharted Berkeley Festival of Ideas on Oct. 16-17 in downtown Berkeley. Information and tickets at BerkeleyIdeas.com