Author Archives: Andrew Gilbert

Human rights made strikingly visible at new Berkeley show

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Human rights organizations often depend on the media’s megaphone, calling malefactors to account by publicizing their misdeeds. So it’s something of a paradox that Berkeley’s most influential and visionary NGO dedicated to the international struggle for human rights, the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law, tends to operate under the radar. In marking the center’s 20th anniversary, the HRC is presenting an alternately breathtaking and hair-raising photo exhibition, Envisioning Human Rights, part of a new effort to raise public awareness about the organization’s vital work. … Continue reading »

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Amber Gougis: Going places but taking her own path

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Amber Gougis is going places, but she’s taking her own winding way. A thoughtful singer who infuses jazz with soul and brings an improvisation-laced sensibility to Chicago blues and mid-century R&B, she returns to the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley on Wednesday. While she’s earned widespread respect around the Bay Area music scene, the Oakland singer decided to give up her every-other-week gig at the Gourmet Ghetto eatery after a two-year run to take a position as a nanny.

“I like having a steady job,” says Gougis, 30. “But I’m really excited to be back at the Cheese Board. It’s such a great place to develop as a musician. You can hire great musicians because it pays. It’s such a good environment. I really grew as a musician during those two years.” … Continue reading »

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Beth Custer re-issues album about U.S. foreign policy

Beth Custer. Photo: Federico Cusigch
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When Noam Chomsky is asked to provide the topic for a speaking engagement many months in the future he’s said to suggest “The Conflict in the Middle East.” Perhaps the story is apocryphal, but the re-issue of clarinet/composer Beth Custer’s 2005 album “Respect As A Religion” provides a similar reminder that some topical themes sadly never seem to go out of date. With the US entangled in numerous hotspots and unstable regions, Custer figured the time was ripe to break out her underground hit “Empire of the United States,” the scathing, funk-laden bebop-informed denunciation of American foreign policy that opens the album.

“It’s probably not the greatest financial decision, but the album sold out the first pressing and I never ordered more,” says Custer, who brings an expanded version of her stellar band to Freight & Salvage on Saturday. “With all this ramping up to war I thought it seemed like the right time to bring it out again.” … Continue reading »

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Kickin the Mule: Still kicking at the Cheese Board

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For working musicians the value of a good regular gig falls somewhere between gold and platinum. What distinguishes a good gig from a bad one? Money is only part of the equation. The opportunity for creative expression ranks high, as do audiences that, at a minimum, don’t treat music as a conversational obstacle best overcome by talking louder. Respectful management is value added (you might be surprised to hear how many music-presenting establishments are run by people who make no secret of their disdain for musicians). For these reasons and others, Kickin the Mule treasures its long-running Friday gig at the Cheese Board on Shattuck Avenue. … Continue reading »

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Avotcja Jiltonilro: Soul on Soul

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rd birthday bash. As a poet, radio producer, playwright, multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, and invaluable DJ on KPOO (89.5) and KPFA (94.1FM), she’s connected with a vast and varied array of artists, many of whom will be on hand at the party to read their work, tell their tales, sing their songs, and play their tunes.

“It’s not about me, the show is the star,” says Avotcja, who goes by the single moniker pronounced Avacha. “You wind up hearing from lots of different people, and you have a whole different way of looking at the universe.” … Continue reading »

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Laura Inserra: A Rose grows in Berkeley

Laura Inserra. Photo: Marco Snchez
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In the midst of a thriving practice as a musician, composer and arts presenter in Rome, Laura Inserra decided that a year or so in the Bay Area could offer a welcome change of scenery. That was 2007, and instead of returning home to Italy the North Berkeley resident has become an invaluable presence on the Bay Area arts scene, bringing evocative music to unusual settings.

A multi-instrumentalist who specializes in percussion, Inserra performs Saturday at the Subterranean Arthouse with BEL Trio, an improvisation-laced ensemble with a global sensibility featuring bassist Ben Levine and multi-instrumentalist Evan Fraser, best known for his work with Hamsa Lila and Beats Antique on kalimba, berimbau, calabash, and various frame drums. … Continue reading »

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Kavita Shah: Bringing a world of jazz to Berkeley

Kavita xxx. Photo: Julien Carpenter
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If Kavita Shah had stuck to her usual morning ritual, she would have missed the fateful subway ride that changed the course of her life. For some reason, instead of hustling down the stairs to catch the train to her job at Human Rights Watch in midtown Manhattan, she decided to wait for the next car. When it arrived, and the doors opened, she immediately recognized Sheila Jordan, the extraordinary jazz singer who has served as den mother to a diverse array of aspiring vocalists for more than four decades.

“I wouldn’t be here if not for Sheila,” said Shah, a rising New York vocalist who makes her Bay Area debut Saturday at San Francisco’s Red Poppy Art House, and Sunday afternoon at Berkeley’s California Jazz Conservatory (formerly the Jazzschool).

The American-born daughter of Indian immigrants, Shah recently released an enthralling debut album Visions on Greg Osby’s Inner Circle Music, a label that has launched some of the most interesting jazz artists of the 21st century. Produced by Benin-born guitar star Lionel Loueke (heard recently at the SFJAZZ Center with Herbie Hancock), the album features her singular synthesis of jazz, Afro-Brazilian, West African, and Hindustani music. … Continue reading »

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Otonowa plays Berkeley: To Japan, With Love

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What started as a one-off fundraiser for the people of northern Japan stricken by the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 has turned into a musical mission of healing and remembrance. When drummer Akira Tana, bassist Ken Okada and flutist/saxophonist Masaru Koga first came together in the summer of 2011 at Fairfax’s Elsewhere Gallery, they brought in jazz arrangements of traditional Japanese songs, some dating back centuries. The music was so powerful that they ended up presenting it to stricken communities in Japan last year, and Sunday afternoon’s California Jazz Conservatory performance will raise funds for the trio’s return trip in July.

“We played in communities that aren’t there any more, at temporary shopping centers and housing units,” says the Palo Alto-raised Tana, whose father Daisho Tana led the Berkeley Buddhist Temple at 2121 Channing Way in the 1930s. “These songs hit home. You realize what a healing force for the spirit music can be, and it reminds me of why we got into doing this stuff.”  … Continue reading »

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Oh Happy Day! Dorothy Morrison, Blues Broads

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As a young gospel singer, Richmond-raised Dorothy Morrison was used to people catching the spirit in the pews. But nothing prepared her for the lightning strike of gospel’s biggest hit ever, “Oh Happy Day,” which she recorded in 1968 with the Edwin Hawkins Singers at Berkeley’s Ephesian Church of God in Christ. These days, she’s bringing sacred music to the rough-and-ready repertoire of the Blue Broads, the powerhouse foursome that returns Freight & Salvage Thursday June 26 featuring church-proven belter Annie Sampson, blues great Tracy Nelson, and Texas tornado Angela Strehli. … Continue reading »

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Aoife O’Donovan: Off the crooked path

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After a decade-long run as lead singer in Crooked Still, Aoife O’Donovan is taking full advantage of her unattached status. Since the popular Boston string band announced an amicable disbanding in 2012, O’Donovan seems to be popping up everywhere, lending her cool, silvery vocals to a fascinating array of settings.

From Yo-Yo Ma’s Grammy Award-winning Goat Rodeo Sessions, and jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas’s album of hymns and folk songs Be Still, to the recent PBS broadcast Transatlantic Sessions featuring top artists from Nashville, Scotland and Ireland, O’Donovan stands out no matter what company she keeps. But she’s at her most unfettered leading her own band, which performs Friday at Freight & Salvage (award-winning Nashville singer/songwriter Liz Longley opens the show). … Continue reading »

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Oaktown comes to Berkeley Monday at the Freight

OJW Photo by Barbara Butkus
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Without a master plan or any grand ambitions, Berkeley bassist Ravi Abcarian turned himself into an essential part of the Bay Area jazz scene, and the keeper of the grassroots flame that continues to burn brightly at the Oaktown Jazz Workshops.

Located steps from the Jack London Square waterfront, Oaktown provides some 40 kids ages 10-18 with weekly, low-cost classes led by veteran players (as well as augmenting the jazz program in BUSD’s middle schools).

The young Oaktown musicians perform Monday at Freight & Salvage with percussion master John Santos at an OJW fundraiser, a program that also features powerhouse tenor saxophonist Richard Howell & Sudden Changes, and the OJW Alumni Group featuring saxophonist Kaz George, pianist Ian McArdle, bassist Aneesa Al-Musawwir, and drummer Savannah Harris. … Continue reading »

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Cascada de Flores: Incandescent songsters in Berkeley

Cascades De Flores. Photo: Gael McKeaon
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Asked to name four or five of the most important Bay Area venues where musicians can try out new concepts and even savvy music fans are likely to overlook Berkeley’s Cheese Board Collective. But with two acts a day Tuesday through Saturday, the informal setting has proven to be an invaluable proving ground for acts like internationally acclaimed jazz crooner Ed Reed, the versatile blues combo Kickin’ The Mule, and most recently the incandescent Latin American songsters Cascada de Flores.

Celebrating the upcoming release of a gorgeous new album, Radio Flor, the duo of vocalist Arwen Lawrence and guitarist Jorge Liceaga perform Saturday at Freight & Salvage with a bevy of close collaborators, including percussionist Brian Rice, bassist Saul Sierra-Alonso, and Marco Diaz on piano and trumpet. … Continue reading »

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So Béla Bartók and 2 clarinetists walk into a Jewish deli…

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Hungarian composer Béla Bartók wrote 44 Duos for Two Violins as a series of exercises for young musicians, but for Oakland reed experts Phillip Greenlief and Cory Wright interpreting the brief pieces is anything but child’s play. They’ve been investigating 44 Duos for more than two decades, and revisit the works Saturday at Saul’s Deli on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, in the program Reimagining Bartók and the Folk Tradition.

Playing Bb clarinets, they’re faithful to his score, but improvise in and out of the pieces.

“They’re pretty short, so we connect several pieces to create suites, which is pretty easy because the pieces are also wildly contrasting,” Greenlief says. “It’s such an interesting mix of work. They are clearly based on folk music, stuff he transcribed when he was doing all that ethnomusicological research. I don’t really know the folk sources, but from what I can tell 44 Duos pretty much represents the original material.” … Continue reading »

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