DIY in Berkeley, with pianist Caili O’Doherty Trio and The Miscreants

Caili O'Doherty's trio performs Friday at Jupiter and Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory
Caili O’Doherty’s trio performs Friday at Jupiter and Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory

New York City pianist Caili O’Doherty has found cool blue waters in the Bay Area, while Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg has plunged into the roiling New York rapids. What these two very different musicians share is a commitment to making their own gigs happen.

At 24, O’Doherty is already a familiar face in the Bay Area. Following the release of Padme, her heralded 2015 debut album, she performed widely around the region last year, making a powerful impression with her lyrically charged original compositions. She returns this week with a lustrous body of new music for her New York City trio featuring drummer Cory Cox and Israeli-born bassist Tamir Shmerling.

“I always like the idea of creating your own opportunities,” says O’Doherty, who plays Jupiter on Friday, Webster Haven Presents house concert in Berkeley on Saturday, (email jsteere@igc.org or call 510-849-1969), and a Sunday afternoon California Jazz Conservatory concert with special guest Steven Lugerner on alto saxophone and bass clarinet (she also gives a workshop Sunday at the CJC 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. on “Using Language as a tool for Improvising”).  

The Oregon-raised O’Doherty credits pianist Danilo Perez with instilling a DIY ethic that can be summed up with right field Willie Keeler’s axiom “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” When the Panamanian piano master recruited the 16-year-old O’Doherty for Berklee College of Music’s new Global Jazz Institute she finished high school in Portland a year early and moved to Boston. The elite program not only put her next to jazz stars such as Dave Liebman, Terri Lyne Carrington, John Patitucci, and Joe Lovano, she also performed and taught in Colombia, Togo, Benin and Panama, which often required resourcefulness and quick thinking.


“Danilo stressed the importance of trying to find blue oceans rather than red water as a musician, meaning places where others aren’t struggling for very limited resources,” she explains. “Living in New York City everyone’s competing for the same things. I always liked the idea of trying to find my own way. Bandleading is something I’m good at, and I love to write and teach and play my own music. I just learn so much every time I book my own tour, more than college can ever teach. That’s my real education.”

It's not easy being green, but Ben Goldberg's got his contra alto clarinet and The Miscreants, who play the Berkley Arts Festival performance space Saturday. Photo by Ken Weiss.
It’s not easy being green, but Ben Goldberg’s got his contra alto clarinet and The Miscreants, who play the Berkley Arts Festival performance space Saturday. Photo by Ken Weiss.

It’s a game plan that has proven particularly fruitful in recent years for Ben Goldberg. After decades as a creative force on the Bay Area scene, he’s made a concerted effort to collaborate with New York improvisers. He’s played dozens of gigs with a startling array of musicians, and recorded several galvanizing sessions, like The Out Louds with guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, a highly responsive free-improv trio. Back in town for a spell, Goldberg performs Saturday at the Berkeley Arts Festival space with The Miscreants, a collective trio featuring Berkeley drummer Scott Amendola and bassist Trevor Dunn, a former Bay Area resident (who along with Amendola makes up two-thirds of Nels Cline Singers, a volatile instrumental trio led by the protean Wilco guitarist). Oakland reed master Phillip Greenlief plays a solo opening set

Of course, making opportunities is a lot easier if you are offering something no one else has, which pretty much defines the creative arc of Goldberg’s career. O’Doherty is just starting her journey, and she’s already made a mark with flowing melodies that seem to follow the contours of unheard lyrics. A few years ago, she realized that to find her voice as a composer she needed to tap into the rhythms, pitches and cadences that people use in conversation.

Caili O'Doherty - Padme Front Cover (hi-res 300dpi)

With Padme (which means lotus in Sanskrit) she delivered a highly impressive introduction to an artist who already has a world of music under her belt, courtesy of several visionary mentors. Growing up in Portland, Ore., she came under the strict tutelage of trumpeter Thara Memory, who earned a Grammy Award collaborating with another former student, bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding.

Memory not only turned O’Doherty onto jazz while she attended the rigorous Arts & Communications Magnet, “he had us do all these different activities, from Ghanaian drum lessons with the master percussionist Obo Addy to salsa dance classes, so we could really understand the rhythms,” she says. He also encouraged his students to compose, and when O’Doherty found her tunes were too busy, “with a lot of notes and not a lot of pauses,” she started writing lyrics to set to music. “Then I’d discard the lyrics and use the melody as it was.”


Some of her most captivating pieces flow from her visceral response to extreme encounters. The haunted “Tree of Return” emerged from her experience visiting one of the ports in Benin where enslaved Africans started their journey across the Atlantic. She wrote the moody but ascending theme for “The Promise of Old Panama City” after visiting the ramshackle urban core where students she was teaching through the Danilo Perez Foundation lived.

The close encounter with extreme poverty put her work in a whole new perspective. Perez, a long-time member of the Wayne Shorter Quartet, arguably jazz’s most celebrated band, is committed to music as a force for social change. Without a hint of sentimentality, O’Doherty’s music on Padme reflects the way travel can expand the spirit, opening our ears to the music of other lives.

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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