Actual Trio: Berkeley’s friendly neighborhood jazz group plays home

Berkeley’s friendly, neighborhood Actual Trio, with Dan Seamans, John Hanes and John Schott, celebrates the release of “ACT II” Friday at the Back Room with old and new friends. Photo: Tracy McBride

John Schott dropped by for a chat the other day. I run into the Berkeley guitarist around town pretty regularly, but it’s always a pleasure when we get a chance to talk for a few minutes. Fiercely smart and given to both self-lacerating wit and big-hearted bonhomie, he’s a player whose music wrestles insistently with ideas and influences while never neglecting to take care of rhythmic excitement and harmonic exploration.

His visit was prompted by Friday’s concert at the Back Room celebrating the release of the second album by his Actual Trio, featuring bassist Dan Seamans and drummer John Hanes, ACT II (F. Scott Fitzgerald may have popularized the phrase “the Jazz Age,” but he clearly missed the mark about no second acts in American life.)

With ten original tunes produced by longtime Berkeleyan Hans Wendl at Fantasy Studios, the project couldn’t be more “locasonic” than if Schott had whipped it up in the kitchen at Chez Panisse. “The Back Room is an extension of that localness,” Schott said. “I’m very happy to be doing it there.”

“I think about that lot, about how rooted in Berkeley the trio is,” he continued. “We’ve all lived here for a long time and brought up kids here. At the same time, I wonder, as the CD ventures out into the world, does it in anyway connote something to people? I don’t hear an accent in my own voice. But do other people here something that says, Northern California, or something as specific as Berkeley?”

Schott didn’t set out to evoke the town, like say, saxophonist and Berkeley High math teacher Dan Plonsey’s micro-epic series of recordings The Music of El Cerrito. If Actual Trio’s music is taken as a reflection of Berkeley it’s a flattering portrait, lean and sinewy, rakish and self-possessed, deeply informed by jazz and funk innovators but never derivative.

A point of reference is Peter Apfelbaum’s 1996 album Luminous Charms (Gramavision), “which Hans produced,” notes Schott, who settled in Berkeley in 1988. “I love that record,” a roof-raising sextet featuring Apfelbaum’s fellow Berkeley High alumni Will Bernard (who played and recorded with Schott and Charlie Hunter in the signature mid-90s band T.J. Kirk) and Josh Jones, Jeff Cressman, Deszon X. Claiborne, and the late, much missed John Shifflett. “I’ve played with all of those musicians and played those songs with Peter. I wasn’t born here, but I feel like I married in via all my friends who did grow up here.”

Friday’s show could be billed as ACT III & IV, as Schott is expanding the band with two different line ups. For the first Back Room set the trio will be joined by alto saxophonist Jayn Pettingill, guitarist Myles Boisen, trombonist Alan Williams, and a mystery special guest on tenor sax. For the second set the septet reduces to a quintet with Williams and Broun Fellinis tenor saxophonist David Boyce. For Schott, the event is “in the spirit of celebrating of the birth of a child, which is what releasing a CD kind of feels like.”

“My instincts are to throw a party, and a good party has a combination of people you know very well, and friends of friends, people you’d want to meet,” he continued. “This is very much an old friends/new friends situation. Myles is someone I’ve known and worked with for 25 years, and two guitars is always a luxury, a chance for a lot of inner voices and contrapuntal exploration. And then David Boyce is someone who I’ve known and shared bills with for 25 years. Jayn is a wonderful saxophonist who I’ve played with a handful of times, and Alan Williams has played with friends of mine, but this is our first time to get an opportunity to perform together.”

“ACT II” cover art by Han Bennink, Dutch drummer and visual artist

He’ll be revisiting the music with the same instrumentation but different players next month in New York City as part of his week-long residency at The Stone, where he’s reuniting with Berkeley High alumni Bernard and Jessica Jones. If there’s one outside element in ACT II it’s the album cover art, which was created by Han Bennink. Connected via Wendl, Schott sent the legendary Dutch drummer the music and he evidentially approved and contributed the Cubist-inspired graphic. Beyond the thrill of including an artist who performed with Eric Dolphy in the project, Schott noted that Bennink’s art means that “Han, Hans, and Hanes are on the same record.”

Recommended gig: Medicine Ball Trio at Monkey House

If the Back Room sells out, you can always stroll down University Avenue to the Monkey House on Friday, where storied San Francisco guitarist, vocalist and harmonica player David Sturdevant is recording a live album by the Medicine Ball Trio featuring clarinetist John Stafford, and Anton Patzner on violin and percussion. Patzner is best known as a member of the chamber pop combo Foxtails Brigade, and he and Foxtails vocalist/guitarist Laura Weinbach will play an opening set as the enchanting duo Laura and Anton.