Author Archives: Andrew Gilbert

Raising voices for 50 years with the Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra

Berkeley Community Chorus in rehearsal. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
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The competition for Berkeley’s most Berkeley organization is stiff, but you’ll be hard pressed to find an institution that embodies the city’s best impulses more fully than the Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra. Radically egalitarian, creatively ambitious, and committed to offering free performances, the BCCO brings together some 220 singers, many of whom have little or no musical training.

The choir concludes its milestone 50th season next weekend with performances of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” at Hertz Hall at 8 p.m. on June 3, and 4 p.m. on June 4. A massive undertaking that involves a chamber orchestra and a full orchestra, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, an organ, three conductors, and three vocal soloists (baritone Efrain Solis, tenor Brian Thorsett, and soprano Carrie Hennessey), this production of staging the canonical work is the culmination of more than two years of planning. … Continue reading »


Getting busy with pianist/composer Satoko Fujii

Pianist/composer Satoko Fujii performs at the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space Friday on a double bill with Larry Ochs, and plays a solo recital Saturday at Maybeck Studio in honor of Paul Bley
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When Satoko Fujii describes herself as lazy, take it with a grain of salt. Better yet, make it a shaker-full. Since recording her first CD in 1996, the Japanese pianist/composer has left even her most prolific peers in the dust, releasing a veritable torrent of albums documenting a dizzying array of ensembles around the world. And it’s not like she’s sacrificing quality for quantity, as Fujii is widely considered one of the most consistently vivid writers in jazz.

She returns to Berkeley this weekend for two very different concerts that are part of her year-long celebration marking the 20th anniversary of Libra, the label she runs with her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura (aka Kappa Maki). On Friday, Fujii plays the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space in a double bill co-sponsored by the Center for New Music San Francisco. She opens with Maki and special guest drummer Gino Robair, followed by Berkeley saxophonist Larry Ochs, bassist Jason Hoopes and drummer Jordan Glenn (with all the musicians coming together for a brief third set). And on Saturday she plays a free improv solo piano recital at Maybeck Studio, offering a tribute to the late pianist/composer Paul Bley, a mentor who joined her on the first Libra album in 1996, Something About Water. … Continue reading »

Dances with wolves: Los Lobos and Evie Ladin in Berkeley

The Evie Ladin Band with Keith Terry and Erik Pearson plays Freight & Salvage on May 19.
Photo: Gudmundor Vigfusson.
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It’s one thing for a musician to dig down into the roots of a tradition and another thing entirely to create a personal voice out those influences. Several bands playing Berkeley in the coming days offer exceptionally vivid examples of the way a love of traditional forms can serve as a launching pad rather than a straight jacket.

Well into its fifth decade as LA’s greatest active rock band, Los Lobos plays its first Berkeley show in more than a decade at the UC Theatre on Friday (the East Bay ensemble Los Cenzontles play the opening set). Featuring essentially the same cast of players who came together in East LA in the mid-1970s (David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, Cesar Rosas, and Conrad Lozano), the band received a new jolt of energy with the fall 2011 arrival of Mexican-born drummer Enrique “Bugs” González.

Last year the group released its 24th album, Gates of Gold (429 Records), and these restless stylistic prowlers seem to be in no danger of repeating themselves. Blues and funk, R&B and cumbia, soul and rollicking rock ‘n’ roll all jostle forward on different tracks, while the tunes are as concise and well-constructed as ever. They’ll play some of the new songs at the UC, but with such a vast catalog, they’ll be drawing from numerous albums. … Continue reading »

Cheryl Leonard brings melting glaciers, kelp to Berkeley

Cheryl Leonard brings her rocks, kelp, ice, and penguin bones to the Bower Center on Wednesday for "Polar Landscapes" a program of original music with Phillip Greenlief. Photo by Cheryl Leonard.
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Cheryl Leonard followed a long winding path from the Berkeley Hills to the polar regions, but her ability to make arresting music using the sounds of melting glaciers flows directly from an epiphany she experienced hiking near Tilden.

Leonard has spent a good deal of time over the past eight years in the Arctic and Antarctic, making field recordings and collecting materials that she transforms into musical instruments. She performs “Polar Sounscapes” 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Brower Center on the closing night of the multi-media exhibition “Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art 1775-2012,” which examines some two centuries of artists inspired by frozen landscapes. The event is the first on an ongoing collaboration between the Brower Center and the new music organization Other Minds. … Continue reading »

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Junior Reggae bring sleek sounds of Jamaica to Jupiter

Junior Reggae (Rob Ewing, Jason Levis, and Steven Blum) play Jupiter Tuesdays in May. Photo by Eric Vogler.
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When Caribbean rhythms seduce a jazz musician, Cuba is usually the alluring culprit. But for multi-instrumentalist Rob Ewing the loping grooves of Jamaica have proven irresistible. An accomplished drummer and skilled trombonist who performs every Sunday with the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra at Doc’s Lab in North Beach, Ewing holds down the bass chair in three reggae combos, including the 10-piece Pavlov’s Band, the five-piece Reggae On the Radio, and the trio Junior Reggae, which plays Jupiter every week in May as part of the pub’s Tuesday Jazzidency series.

Featuring Steven Blum on keyboards and drummer Jason Levis, Junior Reggae is an instrumental ensemble that was born in Berkeley. Ewing and Levis have been making music together since their undergrad days in Boulder at Naropa University (where they both studied with piano legend Art Lande). Since arriving in the Bay Area in the early aughts, they’ve played in a variety of settings together, but it was reggae that forged their connection as a rhythm-section tandem. As the director of the Jazzschool Community Music School, Ewing was on hand when Levis, an associate professor at the California Jazz Conservatory, needed a bassist for a reggae class. … Continue reading »

Strings on steroids… This ain’t no chamber music

Mimi Fox plays Freight & Salvage Wednesday with the SF String Trio. Photo by Michael Oletta
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If you don’t know the players involved, the SF String Trio’s name might lead you to expect a polite new addition to the Bay Area chamber music scene. That would be wrong. Featuring master improvisers and commanding virtuosos who project the energy and intensity of a power trio, the collective with guitarist Mimi Fox, violinist Mads Tolling and bassist Jeff Denson makes its Bay Area debut 8 p.m. Wednesday at Freight & Salvage.

“We aim to disrupt people who are sipping wine,” says Fox with a wicked chuckle. “We aim to start trouble. All of us try to play our instruments to the full measure of what each can offer.”

Fox established herself as one of the Bay Area’s most formidable guitarists more than two decades ago, joining the ranks of jazz’s guitar royalty while performing and recording a multi-generational array fret stars from Charlie Byrd, Kenny Burrell, and Mundell Lowe to Charlie Hunter, Stanley Jordan and Patty Larkin. With 10 albums to her credit as a leader or co-leader, she released a definitive statement with 2006’s Perpetually Hip on Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label. A double CD, the first disc captures Fox stretching out with a stellar quartet featuring bassist Harvie S, pianist Xavier Davis and drum maestro Billy Hart (the subject of a career-honoring retrospective at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival in June), while the second disc is a solo tour de force, a format she’s made a central part of her career as a performer. … Continue reading »

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Do you know what it means to miss Port Au Prince? Emeline Michel plays Zellerbach

Emeline Michel performs Saturday as part of globalFEST Creole Carnival at Zellerbach. Photo by Eleonore Coyette.
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On a recent Tuesday Lower Sproul Plaza teemed with grade school children wearing Mardi Gras beads, buzzing, twirling and blinking in the sunlight after a Cal Performances matinee SchoolTime concert by Haitian star Emeline Michel. Inside of Zellerbach, Michel seemed equally energized after the show, a preview of the music she’ll be performing 8 p.m. Saturday as part of globalFEST: Creole Carnival, a Cal Performances triple bill with the great Rio samba band Casuarina and Jamaican guitar master Brushy One String.

“The kids don’t hold anything back,” says Michel, who last performed in the Bay Area at Stern Grove in 2007, opening for Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective. “These are some of the most fun events that I do.”

Often described as the Joni Mitchell of Haiti, Michel is a singer/songwriter, dancer, producer and activist who has come to embody her homeland’s vital culture and resilient spirit. Combining folkloric Haitian rhythms and contemporary styles like topical compas and celebratory rara with jazz, samba and bossa nova, she’s a captivating performer who divides her time between Port Au Prince and New York City (when she’s not touring internationally).  … Continue reading »

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Benefit for Kevin Vance and the UC Theatre opens (really!)

Kevin Vance hosting the Front Porch Stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2015 
(courtesy of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival)
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Kevin Vance has spent his life sharing his love of music over the airwaves, and now many of the musicians he’s championed are demonstrating their abiding appreciation for his efforts. Struggling with underemployment, Vance has fallen on hard times, a situation exacerbated by a prostate cancer diagnosis last year. On Saturday, a stellar roster of roots musicians will hold a benefit concert for Vance at Ashkenaz to help him to stay in his one-bedroom Berkeley apartment.

Organized by fellow KALW DJ Dore Stein, the influential conduit for international music and host of Tangents, the concert features roots-rocker Maurice Tani, the powerhouse all-women quartet Blame Sally, fellow KPFA radio host and global didgeridoo master Stephen Kent, and Thompsonia, the tuneful new band that brings Berkeley roots music stalwarts Eric and Suzy Thompson together with their daughter Allegra. … Continue reading »

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Herding unicorns: Irene Sazer, the Real Vocal String Quartet

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Long-time Berkeleyan Irene Sazer didn’t set out to capture unicorns. But in creating the Real Vocal String Quartet about a decade ago she had to find a particularly rare, almost mythical, species of musician: conservatory-trained string players comfortable with free improvisation and versed in an international array of styles from South America and Appalachia to West Africa and the Balkans. And oh yeah, they also have to possess considerable vocal skills. Despite a penchant for her violists to running off to study composition in graduate school Sazer has managed to maintain an exceptionally versatile cast, and she brings the latest edition of the RVSQ to Freight & Salvage 8 p.m. Thursday.

Joining founding violinists Sazer and Alisa Rose are violist Darcy Rindt and cellist Vanessa Ruotolo, who have taken over for violist Matthias McIntire (now enrolled in a doctoral composition program at the University of Toronto), and cellist Jessica Ivry (who’s busy tending to her baby girl). The new quartet is celebrating the release of Slacker Ridge, a six-song EP featuring the previous line up. Expanding on the band’s 2009 eponymous debut album and 2012 follow up, Four Little Sisters, the new recording is as stylistically unfettered and hard to pin down as ever, with strikingly lapidary arrangements ranging from the Appalachian standard “Cluck Old Hen” and Sazer’s gorgeous pop “I Keep You Safe,” to a bevy of Rose’s luscious instrumental pieces and McIntire’s anxiously kinetic “California Residents Blissful Despite Impending Earthquake” (no wonder he’s in Toronto). … Continue reading »

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Buika takes Berkeley! Jessica Jones returns home! Pamela Z zaps BAMPFA!

Buika (photo courtesy of the artist)
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Let us now praise awesome women. When it comes to music, this town makes it all too easy to celebrate Women’s History Month. In the coming days, a veritable tsunami of bodaciously talented women are sweeping over the city, and you can catch several without trying too hard.

Let’s start with Buika, the extravagantly gifted Spanish vocalist presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall 8 p.m. Saturday. She arrives in Berkeley at the start of a national tour with a new band and a startling new repertoire, particularly for fans smitten with her soul-baring flamenco and impassioned rancheras from her star-making 2009 collaboration with Cuban piano maestro Chucho Valdés, El Último Trago (Warner Music). Her latest album, Vivir Sin Miedo (DRO) is her first focusing on her original tunes. Drawing on an array of influences, from reggae, rock and Afrobeat to R&B, funk and jazz, the majority of her songs feature English lyrics.

Like a shot of good tequila, interviewing Buika is always a bracing experience. Even over the phone she exudes protean power, speaking with unguarded emotion. A poet, filmmaker, and music producer, she refuses to constrain her creative impulses, which is why she titled her new album To Live Without Fear. She’s joined by a disparate cast of collaborators, including Meshell Ndegeocello, flamenco singer Potito, British session keyboard star Glen Scott, and singer/songwriter Jason Mraz. … Continue reading »

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Michael Blake brings Tiddy Boom to Berkeley

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Distance isn’t supposed to matter for performers anymore. Skype and MP3s, Dropbox, the cloud, YouTube and other digital purveyors make far-flung collaborations as easy as a mouse click. But for musicians who thrive on actually performing in front of audiences the distance between the coasts can feel longer than ever.

Tenor saxophonist Michael Blake, a creative force on the New York jazz scene for the past three decades, makes his Bay Area debut under his own name Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory (he gives a workshop on improvisation earlier in the day). He’s performing with the same prodigious quartet featured on his 2014 album Tiddy Boom (Sunnyside), a cast of bandleader and composers that includes bassist Ben Allison, pianist Frank Kimbrough, and drummer Rudy Royston (who played a breathtaking show at Yoshi’s last month with trumpeter Dave Douglas). … Continue reading »

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Destani Wolf: Headlining ‘Just Like A Woman’ in Berkeley

Destani Wolf performs Saturday in Rhonda Benin's "Just Like A Woman" at Freight & Salvage. 
Photo by Gabriel Noble.
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With her 1000-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 4th “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.” … Continue reading »

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On the couch with Berkeley’s David Weisberg, playwright of Central Works’ premiere, ‘Totem and Taboo’

Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden (Caleb Cabrera and Bob Greene), unveil the mascot of their beloved Raccoon Lodge during a drug-induced dream journey to The Honeymooners in Central Works, 
Totem & Taboo by David Weisberg.
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With Max Halberstadt’s iconic photo of the stern, cigar-bearing Sigmund Freud hanging over the mantle, the efficient set for David Weisberg’s new play Totem and Taboo signals it’s heading into deep psychological waters from the get-go. A mashup of political diatribe, hallucinatory sitcom, and Greek tragedy, it’s a gloriously unruly three-act farce that gleefully gnaws on enough material for any three productions. I caught the Feb. 20 opening night performance, which kicks off Central Works’ twenty-sixth season, and I’m still thinking about some of the scabrous lines and and biting indictments.

Running through March 20 at the historic Berkeley City Club, Totem and Taboo centers on the pharmacological breakdown of Ralph, an unaffiliated political philosopher and stay-at-home dad who finds himself in the midst of a harrowing but hilarious episode of The Honeymooners. His frustration centers on his inability to find a publisher for his magnum opus, a book he believes reveals the false promise behind liberalism’s blank slate, arguing that humans are by nature tribal. … Continue reading »

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