With her 1,000-watt smile and huge, soul-drenched voice, Destani Wolf doesn’t tend to go unnoticed for long. But after 12 years of carving out a music career in Los Angeles, the Berkeley-raised vocalist quietly slipped back into town last September. She makes her first headlining appearance since returning to Berkeley 8 p.m. Saturday at Freight & Salvage as part of Rhonda Benin’s fourth “Just Like a Woman” extravaganza.
“This is a reintroduction for me, an announcement that I’m back in the Bay Area,” says Wolf, who graduated from Berkeley High in 1994. “I needed some time to transition. I’m a musician and a mom to two boys, and for me it’s about getting my family settled. They’re my inspiration.”
While she’s been keeping a low profile in the Bay Area, Wolf has been making waves on the music scene, where her song “Your Love for Me” from her 2015 EP Peek Away earned a Vox Pop Award from The Independent Music Awards last week. Moving down south opened up numerous doors for her, like collaborating with Shuggie Otis, Alice Russell, Zap Mama, Talib Kweli, and producer Jose Rizo, with whom she was nominated for a Grammy for the 2011 Latin jazz album Mongorama.
Peek Away features her long-time Bay Area collaborators like keyboardist Maya Kronfeld and bassist Steve Hogan. For Saturday’s show, she’ll be singing another original song from the EP “Hard For Him,” and Aretha Franklin’s jazzy soul hit “Day Dreaming.”
Designed to showcase the depth and diversity of female talent in the Bay Area, “Just Like A Woman” also features Benin, the supremely stylish jazz singer Denise Perrier, soul and gospel powerhouse Charlene Moore, and blues singer Pamela Rose, who has spent several years honing and expanding her extravagantly entertaining and informative show Wild Women of Song (which highlights the contributions of women songwriters).
And always eager to showcase young talent, Benin included Barbara DeVeaux Griffith, a senior at Oakland School Of The Arts who performs with the school’s a cappella ensemble Vocal Rush.
“I met Barbara when I was teaching at Ellen Seeling and Jean Fineberg’s Girls’ Jazz Camp,” Benin says. “She was a phenomenal singer then, and that was about 10 years ago.”
The instrumental side is equally prodigious. Flautist Kymberly Jackson is a featured soloist, and will also perform with the Lillian Armstrong Tribute Band featuring bassist Cindy Brown, drummer Ruth Price, and saxophonist Kristen Strom. The ensemble is directed by the indispensable pianist/composer Tammy Hall (who performs a solo recital at R. Kassman Fine Pianos on Sunday (NOTE: this show has been postponed until May 22), and pays tribute to the great organist Shirley Scott at SFJAZZ’s Joe Henderson Lab on March 17).
Benin got to know Wolf at JAM Camp West, a summer program for 10-15 year-olds. “She sang a La Lupe song at the camp fire one night that just blew me away,” Benin recalls. “But really, everything about Destani stood out. She’s a great lady, really talented and knowledgeable about what she’s doing. I’m so glad that she and her family moved back to the Bay Area.”
Wolf grew up in a musical family with Mexican roots, and she made her debut as a performer at 14 with the ZaSu Pitts Memorial Orchestra at the San Mateo County Fairgrounds. By the time she graduated from Berkeley High and enrolled in Long Beach State, she knew that music was her calling. She played funk and Brazilian music around LA and by late 1990s was back in the Bay Area leading her own bands. Wolf credits the close creative bonds she forged at Jazz Camp West with continuing to enrich her life.
“That’s when I met Faye Carol, Rhiannon, and John Santos, and we became great friends,” Wolf says. “He started listening to what I was doing and refereed me to an audition for SoVoSo, and we were together for six years. It was an amazing experience learning to sing a cappella music. During that time John would invite me to do different recordings. He’s always been such a great mentor and family friend and it’s a musical connection I treasure.”
Santos featured Wolf on his 2003 Grammy-nominated Machete album S.F. Bay, and her highest profile Bay Area gigs in recent years have been with his Unusual Standards shows at the SFJAZZ Center and other venues. “Just Like A Woman” offers an enticing taste of what Wolf can do, and that’s exactly why Benin puts in so much work each year pulling the talent-laden program together.
“For one night it’s great to have five or six headliners on one stage,” she says. “Some of us don’t even know each other. We know about each other, but this is a chance for the singers to get together. It’s a family oriented show featuring women and girls of all ages, and it’s mainly about the music, and nothing else.”
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