Author Archives: Andrew Gilbert

Berkeley’s own return to town to perform jazz the LA way

UCLA Charles Mingus Ensemble
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You’ll rarely get an argument on the streets of Berkeley by disparaging Los Angeles. While oft-maligned as a cultural wasteland, LA actually boasts a vast, vibrant and well-entrenched cultural scene that continues to draw the East Bay’s sons and daughters, particularly standout players from Berkeley High’s vaunted jazz program. On Sunday, several recent BHS graduates return from the Southland to perform at Freight & Salvage with the UCLA Charles Mingus Ensemble under the direction of composer James Newton.

Originally created as part of a class that Newton teaches as a professor of ethnomusicology in UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music (he’s arguably the most celebrated jazz flutist of the past four decades and a longtime collaborator with Berkeley percussionist/bandleader Anthony Brown), the group took on an identity of its own during a tour of Macedonia and Kosovo earlier this year. … Continue reading »

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Getting old in Berkeley (Old-Time Music, that is)

The Bucking Mules: one of the many bands performing at the Berkeley Old-Time Music Convention which kicks off next Tuesday. Photo: BOTMC
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In Berkeley everyone gets to be old, at least for a few glorious days.

The 11th annual Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, which runs from Tuesday Sept. 16 to Sunday Sept. 21 at venues around the city, presents some of the countries finest folkies, including young players who are finding their own voices in American roots music. The festival opens on Tuesday at the Pacific Film Archive with a screening of the documentaries “Banjo Tails” and “Musical Holdouts,” with both followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers.

With jam sessions, workshops, panel discussions, square dances and the famous Berkeley Farmers’ Market String Band Concert (first place: one bag of rutabaga; second place: two bags of rutabaga), the BOTMC offers many opportunities to experience the music. … Continue reading »

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Safra: The sound of coexistence at Berkeley’s Ashkenaz

Berkeley’s Jewish Middle Eastern ensemble Safra makes its Ashkenaz debut on Sunday
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If only coexistence was as easy in the Holy Land as it is on the bandstand. The East Bay ensemble Safra, which makes its Ashkenaz debut on Sunday, has developed a sumptuous body of Sephardic music drawn from North Africa’s intermingled musical traditions, combining Hebrew lyrics, Middle Eastern instrumentation, and popular melodies from the Middle East and beyond. The band’s vision isn’t so much utopian as a refraction of an increasingly riven region’s shared cultural heritage.

Launched in early 2013 by two Berkeleyans, vocalist Eliana Kissner and oud player John Ehrlich, Safra quickly took shape with the dynamic percussion tandem of Debbie Fier on dumbek, riqq and bendir, and

Susie Goldenstein on dumbek and riqq. For Sunday’s show, the quartet will be joined on violin, oud and percussion by the Bay Area’s great Moroccan musician Bouchaib Abdelhadi, a master of cross-cultural collaborations (Bruce Bierman teaches Yemenite dance before the concert). … Continue reading »

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Washing the blues away with Lavagem in Berkeley

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Everyone knows about Brazil’s famously exuberant carnival celebrations, which bring millions of people onto the streets for all-night samba-soaked revelry. In Salvador da Bahia, the heart of Afro-Brazilian culture, the Lavagem do Bonfim rivals carnival when it comes to communal celebration, though it’s not nearly as well known. On Sunday, the Casa de Cultura at San Pablo and Hearst is hosting a festival marking Brazilian Independence Day with a Lavagem inspired by the traditional blessing ceremony that culminates on the steps of the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim after a long percussion-powered procession through Salvador. (Watch the video above to get a taste.)

The celebration opens in the morning with free dance classes and features performances on the main stage from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The Lavagem procession and blessing takes place at 2 p.m. For Conceição Damasceno, the founder and guiding spirit of the Casa de Cultura, the ritual is more about staying connected to her Bahian heritage than with summoning the orixás, the syncretic deities of Candomblé that combine Yoruban and Catholic mysticism. … Continue reading »

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Human rights made strikingly visible at 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

Kickin' the Mule
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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

Avotcja
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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 train. 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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