Author Archives: Andrew Gilbert

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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Three cheers for Jazz on Fourth, Sunday in Berkeley

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There’s nothing like free music in a public space to bring people together, and there’s no better line up on tap in town this season than the 19th Annual Jazz on Fourth, which runs this Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

A festival supporting the Berkeley High School Jazz Program, the event features powerhouse blues belter Sista Monica Parker, the dance-inducing Afro-Cuban grooves of Tito Y Su Son De Cuba, and the stylish jazz balladeer Ed Reed, whose remarkable late-blooming career has brought him international renown in his 80s. Of course, the festival is also a student showcase with performances by the award-winning Berkeley High School Combo A and the full 22-piece Berkeley High School Ensemble, directed by Sarah Cline.  … Continue reading »

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The definition of funk: Mo’Fone plays Berkeley

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The Oxford English Dictionary has yet to add the word “’Fonology” to its hallowed lexicon so let me provide this helpful definition for the euphonious noun. ’Fonology: the study of distilling grooves to essential components. Credit for its coinage goes to the potent East Bay trio Mo’Fone, which celebrates the release of its captivating third album ’Fonology Thursday May 15 at the Freight & Salvage.

Featuring El Cerrito drummer Jeremy Steinkoler and the prodigious horn section tandem of San Francisco baritone saxophonist Jim Peterson and Berkeley altoist Larry De La Cruz, Mo’Fone has honed a singularly propulsive sound based on the insight that less can be more when it comes to funk. … Continue reading »

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Such Sweet Shelby: Playing Berkeley on Friday May 2

Pictured: In a special collaboration with California Shakespeare Theater, Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra celebrates the legacy of Duke Ellington on Friday May 2, 2014 at 8:00 p.m. in Zellerbach Hall. 

PHOTO: Peter Varshavsky
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Duke Ellington was riding high in 1957 when he released the album Such Sweet Thunder, a suite of tunes composed with Billy Strayhorn loosely inspired by the sonnets and plays of William Shakespeare. After a long stretch in the wilderness, when it seemed that Ellington’s mighty orchestra might go the way of all the other great swing era big bands, he roared back into the limelight with the triumphant 1956 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. The concert rejuvenated Ellington, spawned a hit live album, and returned him to his singular status as America’s nonpareil composer and bandleader, prompting the maestro to proclaim frequently thereafter, “I was born at Newport.”

No one in the Bay Area has done more to promote and extend Ellington’s orchestral legacy than Sacramento-raised bassist/composer Marcus Shelby, who brings his talent-laden 16-piece ensemble to Cal Performances on Friday for “The Legacy of Duke Ellington: 50 Years of Swing!” a concert marking Ellington’s 115th birthday (April 29) and the upcoming 40th anniversary of his death (May 24). While the program features a wide array of Ellingtonia, it centers on Such Sweet Thunder, a suite that has long fascinated Shelby. … Continue reading »

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Smith Dobson V, Friends with Benefits, play Berkeley

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Contrary to what it might seem, the Roman numeral in Smith Dobson V’s name doesn’t mean there are five guys with the same moniker playing music around the region.

Rather, his daunting facility on drums, vibes, and alto and tenor saxophones means he can be found in any number of situations, including Friday at the California Jazz Conservatory (formerly the Jazzschool) with Friends with Benefits, a collective quartet featuring the masterly Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg, bassist Doug Stuart and pianist Michael Coleman. For that band Dobson plays alto and tenor sax.

Dobson holds down a regular Tuesday night gig at Club Deluxe in the Haight playing tenor with a formidable quartet, and then returns on Wednesdays as a drummer with top-shelf saxophonist/composer Patrick Wolff. On May 10 he’ll be holding down the drum chair at the Sound Room with Berkeley-raised trumpeter Erik Jekabson’s New Orleans Quintet, a different band than the one featured on Jekabson’s album Live at the Hillside Club with the superlative rhythm section of Dobson, bassist John Wiitala, and percussion great John Santos. … Continue reading »

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