Author Archives: Andrew Gilbert

Swinging through Venezuela with the VNote in Berkeley

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The music of Venezuela is one of the great cultural treasures of the Americas, a fabulously verdant tradition in which the intermingling of indigenous, European and African influences has yielded a vivid array of musical forms. No-one has done more to spread awareness of these riches than Jackeline Rago, a percussion expert and master of the diminutive four-string cuatro, Venezuela’s national instrument. Her longtime band, the VNote Ensemble, celebrates the release of a beautiful new album Urbano at the California Jazz Conservatory on Friday.

A quartet featuring Donna Viscuso on flute and harmonica, bassist Sam Bevan, and percussionist Michaelle Goerlitz, VNote has honed a sumptuously syncopated body of work integrating modern jazz with folkloric Venezuelan forms such as joropo and merengue (not to be confused with the popular Dominican dance style). One reason that Venezuelan songs and grooves haven’t gotten much traction outside the country is that until recently the nation’s musicians tended to stay home.

“Venezuela is a country where people consume what they produce, including music,” Rago says. “Our artists are famous within the country, and we’re really proud of our musical roots. It’s something like Brazil or Cuba on a smaller scale. But meeting a Venezuelan musician outside of the country is rare, because there are few of us here.” … Continue reading »

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New music in Berkeley: Leaping into unexpected realms

Caption: Cal Performances and the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players present Project TenFourteen, a series of four concerts featuring world premieres commissioned from 10 different composers.

Credit: Courtesy of San Francisco Contemporary Music Players
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There’s something irresistible about experiencing a composition at its premiere, about the possibility of witnessing an imaginative leap into unexpected musical realms. On Friday, East Bay trumpeter Ian Carey reprises his new work Interview Music: A Suite for Quintet + 1 at the Hillside Club, where he’ll be recording the suite with his talent-laden ensemble. And on Sunday, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) launch Project TenFourteen at Hertz Hall, an unprecedented season-long collaboration with Cal Performances featuring 10 newly commissioned works premiering over the course of four concerts.

Sunday’s inaugural program looks auspicious indeed, with Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz’s commission “Corpórea” for an orchestral nonet with a balance of strings and winds, and Elena Ruehr’s “It’s About Time” for a string oriented sextet. The program’s defining presence is 85-year-old éminence grise George Crumb, who’s represented by three works, including two premieres. The latest of his many settings of poetry by Federico García Lorca, “The Yellow Moon of Andalusia” features mezzo soprano Tony Arnold, Kate Campbell on amplified piano, and percussionists William Winant and Nick Woodbury, while “Yesteryear” is a radically reworked piece for Arnold and pianist Kate Campbell. … Continue reading »

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Enter the Labyrinth with the True Life Trio

True Life Trio
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While neuroscientists are busy trying to unravel the mysterious ties between music and memory, the women in True Life Trio are conducting their own investigation. A spin off of Kitka, TLT has expanded on that innovative all-women vocal ensemble’s powerfully evocative repertoire of traditional Eastern European and Balkan songs with finely crafted arrangements of Cajun, Appalachian and even Mexican standards. Singing gorgeous three-part harmonies, Leslie Bonnett (voice, fiddle, percussion), Briget Boyle (voice, guitar, percussion) and Juliana Graffagna (voice, bass, percussion) weave together disparate cultural currents to create an improvisation-laced sound that’s raucous, soulful and achingly beautiful.

The trio presents their most ambitious work yet, Like Never and Like Always: A Memory Project, Saturday and Nov. 15 at the Rose Labyrinth in Berkeley’s Grace North Church. A collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Gari Hegedus, Like Never and Like Always is a site-specific song cycle designed to unfold as a life lived backwards. In many ways the Labyrinth itself provided a jolt of inspiration for the project. Initially conceived as a seamless sonic journey, the piece took shape when the women encountered the rose-patterned floor design in a hall ideal for presenting unamplified string music. … Continue reading »

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Katrina Krimsky: A piano legend in Berkeley

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For a pianist who’s been at the center of several musical revolutions, Katrina Krimsky keeps a pretty low profile. Since returning to San Francisco in 2001 after two decades in Zurich she’s performed at house concerts and benefits, often collaborating with her former Mills College student Barbara Higbie. But considering her near-legendary status as an interpreter and muse for disparate composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Terry Riley, and Woody Shaw, Krimsky has mostly avoided the spotlight. This makes her rare public recital Sunday at R. Kassman Fine Pianos on Gilman Street a particularly welcome development.

The concert kicks off a new monthly piano recital series presented by Higbie, Sunday at the 88’s. Each hour-long performance is followed by an artist’s reception. Given Higbie’s vast stylistic reach, it’s not surprising that the schedule announced so far features a varied cast of piano masters, including a 75th birthday celebration for composer Mary Watkins (Dec. 7), ace accompanist/producer Frank Martin (Jan. 11), and Tammy Hall (Feb. 8), a powerfully compelling improviser usually heard accompanying top-notch vocalists like Kim Nalley, Denise Perrier, Linda Tillery, and Rhonda Benin. … Continue reading »

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Audrey Martin: A dream fulfilled, plus more Berkeley gigs

Audrey Gilbert. Photo:  Irene Young
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On her 40th birthday Audrey Martin decided to sing. As a marriage and family therapist, she had spent years helping other people work through traumas, resolve deep-seated conflicts, and discover their true selves. Along the way she had set aside her adolescent ambition for a life in music, a sublimated dream that resurfaced with her midlife milestone. Martin’s long and winding creative journey resulted in the captivating debut album Living Room (full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes). She celebrates the CD’s release Sunday afternoon at Berkeley’s California Jazz Conservatory, which played an essential role in her musical education.

“This is the culmination of 17 years of planning and effort at learning the art of jazz and bringing together music that I‘ve wanted to perform and record,” says Martin, a Berkeley resident since 1998. “It also represents an integration of my musical self and my life as a psychotherapist.” … Continue reading »

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Amendola Vs. Blades play Berkeley — more great gigs

Amendola vs Blades
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Berkeley fans of the Hammond B-3 organ don’t get many opportunities to experience the mighty instrument close to home. It’s a sad state of affairs for funk and soul jazz aficionados, especially considering that Wil Blades, the Bay Area’s most prodigious mid-career B-3 player, has long called Berkeley home. He returns to Jupiter on Friday with Oakland drum maestro Scott Amendola.

After a considerable hiatus their long-running duo Amendola Vs. Blades is swinging back into action with a series of gigs, playing two nights at Duende Oct. 23-24 on a round-robin triple bill with Hammond organist Joe Doria’s McTuff, and Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey where all three bands will be rotating seamlessly every song, and Oct. 25 at the Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco. Pushing the limits of the duo format to the very edge, Blades and Amendola have honed an ambitious repertoire, including a full-scale interpretation of The Far East Suite, a late-career masterpiece by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. … Continue reading »

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Great sounds from Africa at Afropop Spectacular

Krar Collective
(credit: Jacob Crawfurd)
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As a griot, Mali’s Bassekou Kouyaté traces his musical lineage back to Sundiata Keita’s expansive 13th century empire, a wealthy polity that encompassed a huge swath of West Africa. His ancestors entertained the royal court and every note he plays on the ngoni, a plucked string ancestor of the banjo, embodies a tradition handed down for generations by word of mouth. But Kouyaté is not beholden to the past. Ngoni Ba, the band he brings to Zellerbach Hall on Saturday for a Cal Performances double bill with Ethiopia’s Krar Collective, represents a radical evolution.

Determined to enhance the instrument’s visibility, Kouyaté assembled Ngoni Ba, an eight-piece combo that combines the rollicking energy a rock band with the emphatic call-and-response choruses of a gospel ensemble. Given that the ngoni is traditionally played while seated, Kouyaté’s most radical move was simply standing up.

“When I started making music with friends playing guitar and bass, I decided I wanted to be at the same level as the musicians surrounding me,” he says. “That was the first modification, not to the instrument itself, but the way to play the instrument, which changed the technique a little bit.”

Looking to expand the four-string ngoni’s harmonic palette, he added additional strings and introduced Ngoni Ba on 2007’s Segu Blue (Out Here Records), garnering tremendous success in Europe and winning a coveted BBC Radio 3 World Music Award. He refined the concept on 2009’s I Speak Fula, showcasing his ingenious orchestrations for his band, which is essentially an ngoni quartet backed by a rhythm section and the incantatory vocals of Kouyaté’s wife and creative partner Amy Sacko. … Continue reading »

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Lande ho! A jazz master returns to Berkeley

Jazz pianist Art Lande
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Art Lande makes no apologies for being old school. A brilliant pianist, efficient drummer and influential composer, he’s played a particularly important role as a teacher who treats every classroom and bandstand encounter as an opportunity for passing on jazz’s essential oral tradition.

Lande returns to Berkeley, where he got his start as an educator, to perform a duo concert Sunday, Oct. 5 at 4:30 p.m. at the California Jazz Conservatory with saxophonist Peter Sommer (he also performs Oct. 11 at Piedmont Piano with a quintet featuring Sommer, bassist Peter Barshay, drummer Alan Hall, and Berkeley-raised trumpeter Erik Jekabson).  … Continue reading »

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Berkeley concert marks free speech movement’s birthday

Jo McDonald
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As a brief catalytic blast of energy, the Free Speech Movement achieved its primary goals so quickly that it didn’t have much time to inspire enduring songs and anthems. But music played an important role in those heady fall months of 1964, when students forced UC Berkeley’s administration to drop campus restrictions on political speech. Saturday’s concert at Ashkenaz celebrates the 50th anniversary of the FSM, while connecting the musical threads between the FSM and earlier progressive struggles.

See other events to mark the anniversary of the free speech movement

Hosted by Lynne Hollander, an FSM founder and the widow of movement icon Mario Savio, the evening opens with a song circle led by singer-songwriter-activist Hali Hammer, followed by brief sets by Country Joe McDonald and Nancy Schimmel, a veteran of the folk and women’s music scenes who sees many connections between the FSM and today’s Occupy movements. She’s likely to sing “Billy Boy,” a song by her mother, Malvina Reynolds, about the 1960 San Francisco protests over the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, an FSM forerunner. … Continue reading »

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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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