Author Archives: Andrew Gilbert

Poetry and jazz: Surging together in Berkeley

Raymond Nat Turner
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The unassuming apartment complex at Seventh and Allston doesn’t look much like the cradle of a creative movement, but for spoken-word artist Raymond Nat Turner the West Berkeley locale provided everything he needed to launch UpSurge!

Working as roadie, manager and all-round assistant for Donald “Duck” Bailey in the 1980s, Turner started frequenting a weekly jam session hosted by the jazz drum legend at the Wellington Hotel at Seventh and University (where La Quinta stands today). With a steady flow of young musical talent from Berkeley High attending the sessions, Turner found the personnel he needed to launch the politically charged jazz/poetry ensemble that celebrates its 25th anniversary 8 p.m. Friday at the Berkeley Art Festival performance space on University Avenue, just a mile east of where the project first came together in the fall of 1990. … Continue reading »

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Five Play quintet gives Tony Corman a replay

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For Tony Corman, Five Play is all about second chances. The guitarist and composer co-leads the quintet with his wife, pianist/composer Laura Klein, and the band’s impressive track record speaks to his cussed refusal to let his body betray his passion for music. Featuring reed expert Dave Tidball on saxophones and clarinet, veteran bassist Paul Smith, and drum maestro Alan Hall, Five Play performs 8 p.m. Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory with special guest Ron Horton, a brilliant New York trumpeter who rarely gets to the Bay Area.

When I first met Corman at the North Berkeley house where he and Klein have lived since the mid-1980s he was a formidable tenor saxophonist and I was writing the liner notes to an artfully entertaining album Deconstruction Ahead (SeaBreeze Records) by the horn-laden band Three Tenors No Opera featuring Corman and fellow saxophonists Tidball and Jim Norton. The album received glowing reviews and the band played several high profile gigs, but then Corman seemed to drop out of view, and it was several years before I ran into him and discovered that he had been forced to reinvent himself. … Continue reading »

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David Bowie to Broadway: Dan Wilensky back in Berkeley

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Fresh out of Berkeley High in the summer of 1979, Dan Wilensky had to make a fateful decision. The prestigious Eastman School of Music was offering a full scholarship at the same time that the Ray Charles Orchestra came calling for the young saxophonist. Wilensky chose Charles, and the gig turned into a six-month bandstand education that launched a gloriously diverse and insistently creative career. He returns to town next week for a series of gigs, making his first Berkeley appearances as a leader since heading to New York in 1980. Appropriately, he kicks off the run at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Freight & Salvage, performing as a special guest with the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble and Berkeley High Combo A (which just earned top honors at the Monterey Jazz Festival’s 2015 Next Generation Jazz Festival).

“I’ve played in the East Bay as sideman over the years with artists like Stevie Winwood and Joan Baez, but this is the first time I’m coming back under my own name,” says Wilensky, who relocated to Portland, Oregon in 2012 after three breathless decades on the New York scene. “I’m really excited to go back to Berkeley High to play and work with the students and tell them some stories about the life of a working musician.” … Continue reading »

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Dona Francisca’s Brazilian dance party

Dona Francisca band
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No one knows exactly how the northeastern Brazilian musical style known as forró got its name, but the rootsy accordion-driven sound, once disdained by Brazil’s sophisticated south as the music of taxi drivers and maids, has earned a global following. In the East Bay the leading purveyor of forro is Dona Francisca, a talent-laden six-piece band that holds down Ashkenaz’s First Saturday Forró Party (9 p.m., April 4). The band returns to Ashkenaz on May 2 and also performs at SFJAZZ’s Joe Henderson Lab on Aug. 16, the first time the room will feature an open dance floor.

Launched about a year ago, Dona Francisca was born out of the embers of two excellent ensembles, Forró Brazuca and Kata-Vento, which both fell apart when the Brazilian musicians at the center of the projects decided to move back home. “There were two broken Brazilian bands in the Bay area and eventually we decided to put the pieces together,” says Dona Francisca flutist/vocalist Rebecca Kleinmann, who had played in Kato-Vento, a band dedicated to the original music of guitarist Carlos Oliveira, who returned to Recife a few years ago. … Continue reading »

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Getting Frisky with Macy Blackman & The Mighty Fines

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Maybe a Manhattan methadone clinic wasn’t an auspicious setting for encountering a musical hero, but Macy Blackman wasn’t going let an opportunity to hang out with New Orleans drummer Charles “Hungry” Williams go to waste. Looking to get clean in the bitter winter of 1978, Blackman was sitting on a couch in the lounge of the Bernstein Institute strumming a guitar when someone informed him that Fats Domino’s drummer was in the next room.

“After a while he came in and started singing Chuck Willis’ ‘You’re Still My Baby’ with me,” says Blackman, a Kensington resident for the past 13 years. He celebrates the release of his new album Friskin’ the Whiskers with his band The Mighty Fines at Ashkenaz 9 p.m. Thursday, April 2.

A pianist, cornetist, and vocalist with a gruff, rhythmically assured delivery, Blackman is one of Northern California’s leading exponents of classic New Orleans R&B, and he absorbed a good deal of the music directly from the source. He and Williams struck up a fast friendship after that first encounter, and ended up playing music together up until the drummer’s death in 1986. Blackman, who still supplements his income as a piano technician, even taught Williams his trade. … Continue reading »

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David Wessel: Musical scientist/scientific musician

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In a town known for spawning visionary organizations that insistently hew to a singular path, the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies may be the most Berkeley institution of them all. And that’s because it reflects the polymathic curiosity and probing intelligence of the late founder and director David Wessel, who died suddenly last October at the age of 72. Known by its initialism CNMAT (pronounced senn-mat), it’s a multi-disciplinary research center tucked within Cal’s Department of Music where musicians, composers and leading researchers in physics, mathematics, electrical engineering, psychology, computer science, cognitive science explore the creative interaction between music and technology.

On 4-7 p.m. Sunday, several hundred of Wessel’s friends, family and colleagues from around the world will gather at the Berkeley City Club for a series of improvisation-driven performances, a fitting celebration of his legacy. Among the artists involved are violist Nils Bultmann, Berkeley guitarist John Schott and Matthew Wright on electronics, and vocalist Thomas Buckner, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, Earl Howard on synthesizer, and percussionists George Marsh and Jennifer Wilsey.

“We’ll have several of his closest collaborators on stage performing,” said composer and CNMAT Director Edmund Campion, who Wessel brought to CNMAT in 1996 (he became co-director in 2008). “It could go on for days with all the musicians who will be there, so we had to put some limits on it.”

While the celebration is far more geared toward musical tributes than spoken reminiscing, Campion says that there will be no shortage of text, including abstracts from the hundreds of research projects to which Wessel contributed, “an incredible legacy of published papers, at a rate and amount that’s pretty mind boggling.” … Continue reading »

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Stephanie Crawford: Making herself a masterpiece

Stephanie Crawford will perform Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley
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Stephanie Crawford has performed at top jazz clubs in New York City and Paris, but since settling in the East Bay about 15 years ago she’s been one of the region’s best kept jazz secrets. In recent months lucky Cheese Board patrons have been privy to her vocal artistry (she’s there Thursday afternoon with pianist Joe Warner), but Crawford’s mainstay is the California Jazz Conservatory, where she returns 4:30 pm Sunday for a performance with Warner, ace bassist Ron Belcher, and versatile drummer Greg German.

It’s telling that the North Oakland resident has found a welcome embrace in venues run by vocalists. She was a regular at Anna de Leon’s lamented downtown spot Anna’s Jazz Island. And Laurie Antonioli, the supremely creative singer who runs the CJC’s jazz vocal program, has long championed Crawford, hiring her for gigs as a performer and teacher, where she contributes significant depth to the program. … Continue reading »

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In Berkeley: It’s a woman’s woman’s woman’s world

Kitka. Photo: Thomas Pacha
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Sisterhood isn’t just powerful it sounds hella good. Venues around Berkeley hardly need International Women’s Day (March 8) for inspiration to feature great female musicians, but from Freight & Salvage to R. Kassman Fine Pianos and Berkeley High there are numerous women-centric concerts and events taking place in the coming days.

On 8 p.m. Sunday, the 30th Jewish Music Festival presents the great Bay Area choir Kitka at the Freight, an event that also includes the JMF’s Shofar Award ceremony honoring folk music legend Ronnie Gilbert.

The eight-women Oakland ensemble has developed a vast, breathtaking repertoire of traditional songs from the Balkans, Caucasus, and Slavic lands and new material composed for the group drawing on those Eastern European vocal traditions. For the JMF, Kitka is presenting an array of material, including pieces from last year’s album I Will Remember Everything. The album features composer Eric Banks’ settings of the long censored verse of Sophia Parnok (1885-1933), known as “Russia’s Sappho” for her emotionally charged poems to her lover, the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. … Continue reading »

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Pounding sweet sounds with The Lemonhammer

The Lemonhammer
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As a singer/songwriter with a folky bent, Alexis Harte spent about a decade leading his own bands and taking care of all the details that entails. These days, the Berkeley-reared guitarist and vocalist has found an ideal partner in Oakland’s Damond Moodie, a soul-steeped singer/songwriter who’s also co-director of Pumpkin Seed Childcare.

They’ve effectively combined their complimentary sonic sensibilities in The Lemonhammer. The quartet celebrates the release of a new EP Made In A House 1 p.m. Sunday at Freight & Salvage on a double bill with Judea Eden Band as the opening act. The ticket price includes a copy of the EP. … Continue reading »

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Exposing a tumultuous era: Photographer Ken Light

©Ken Light-60's Whats Going On16
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Drawn to documenting the burgeoning protest movement in the late 1960s, Ken Light came to photojournalism as an extension of his anti-war activism. He started by shooting marches and demonstrations, but it wasn’t until the Nixon administration’s secret bombing of Cambodia came to light in late April 1970, and campuses exploded, that he truly found his calling. Hitchhiking from Ohio State in Athens to the flagship Ohio State campus in Columbus, he captured clashes between students and the National Guard shortly before four students were killed at Kent State in similar demonstrations. Arrested despite his press credentials, Light retrieved his undeveloped film when he got out of jail, and “those photos were published in newspapers and magazines all over the world,” he says. “I was struck, you can really have a voice. I could look around at my generation and tell stories about what’s happening.”

On faculty at UC Berkeley since 1983, Light is a longtime professor at the Graduate School of Journalism and curator of the J-School’s Center for Photography (where there’s now a fantastic exhibition of work by the legendary chronicler of rock, jazz and blues musicians Jim Marshall). Over the years, he’s earned numerous awards and published books examining the lives of farm workers–With These Hands (Pilgrim Press) and To The Promised Land (Aperture); impoverished African-Americans in the deep South — Delta Time (Smithsonian Institution Press); and Appalachia — Coal Hollow (University of California Press). … Continue reading »

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Getting low with Cornelius Boots and Joëlle Léandre

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From his earliest stirrings as a musician, Cornelius Boots has always gravitated to low, rumbling tones. Since moving to the Bay Area about 12 years ago, he’s created a series of darkly dramatic ensembles, such as Edmund Wells, an unprecedented bass clarinet quartet, and the texture-minded duo Sabbaticus Rex.

In recent years, Boots has focused on mastering an array of bass shakuhachis, and he celebrates the release of his quietly enthralling album Mountain Hermit’s Secret Wisdom with a solo recital 8 p.m. Saturday as part of the Trinity Concert Concerts series, at the Trinity Chapel, 2320 Dana St. The “Heart and Blood” concert is a double bill with a Boots’ frequent collaborator, Mark Deutsch, who performs on his patented Bazantar, an upright five-string contrabass with dozens of sympathetic strings. He invented the instrument to accommodate his passion for new music, free improvisation and North Indian classical music. … Continue reading »

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The 88 keys: Tammy Hall plays Berkeley on Sunday

Tammy Hall
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Piano lovers take note: there are some great players hitting Berkeley this weekend.

Tammy Hall can usually be found accompanying some of the best jazz singers in the region and tenor sax greats like Houston Person, who described her as “one mighty soulful lady.” But she makes a rare solo outing 5 p.m. Sunday at R. Kassman Fine Pianos in Berkeley as part of Barbara Higbie’s monthly solo recital series Sunday at the 88s, a repeatedly rewarding showcase for exceptional pianists.

Possessing an uncluttered, telegraphic style marked by her conservatory training and deep roots in gospel, Hall gracefully combines elegance and grit. Her enticing blend of soul and precision has made her an invaluable collaborator for vocalists such as Etta Jones, Kim Nalley, Denise Perrier, Rhonda Benin, Linda Tillery, Frankye Kelly, and Veronica Klaus, who have all availed themselves of Hall’s keyboard services. … Continue reading »

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Berkeley’s Theresa Wong: Have cello, will travel

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Theresa Wong calls Berkeley home, but she forged her artistic identity via a long and winding journey abroad, soaking up creative currents in Salzburg, Vienna, Venice and beyond. A cellist, vocalist, composer, and graphic artist who can often be found enmeshed in gripping multi-media productions, Wong joins forces with guitarist/vocalist Fred Frith at the Berkeley Art Festival space 8 p.m. Saturday for a set of duo improvisation (a double bill with the electronics, piano and percussion trio Dapplegrey benefiting Doctors Without Borders).

In many ways, Frith has played a central role in Wong’s unlikely transformation from Stanford University-trained product designer to performance artist responsible for riveting works like The Unlearning, a multi-media collaboration with violinist/vocalist Carla Kihlstedt inspired by Goya’s disquieting Disasters of War etchings (the album was released on John Zorn’s Tzadik label).

A long-time member of the music faculty at Mills College, Frith first gained renown as a pioneering experimentalist when he co-founded the avant-garde British rock band Henry Cow in 1968. He’s dauntingly prolific artist who works on multiple fronts as a composer, educator, and globe-trotting musical explorer, and his path first crossed with Wong’s when she attended the Venice Biennale in 2003.

“It was the first time I heard Pamela Z, Julia Wolfe, and Fred Frith,” Wong recalls. “I still have my book of notes, trying to make sense of what makes this or that performance work. Everyone was so friendly. I’d go to talks and lectures. I heard Fred playing solo, and saw that he teaches at Mills, near where my parents live.” … Continue reading »

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