Author Archives: Andrew Gilbert

Junior Reggae bring sleek sounds of Jamaica to Jupiter

Junior Reggae (Rob Ewing, Jason Levis, and Steven Blum) play Jupiter Tuesdays in May. Photo by Eric Vogler.
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When Caribbean rhythms seduce a jazz musician, Cuba is usually the alluring culprit. But for multi-instrumentalist Rob Ewing the loping grooves of Jamaica have proven irresistible. An accomplished drummer and skilled trombonist who performs every Sunday with the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra at Doc’s Lab in North Beach, Ewing holds down the bass chair in three reggae combos, including the 10-piece Pavlov’s Band, the five-piece Reggae On the Radio, and the trio Junior Reggae, which plays Jupiter every week in May as part of the pub’s Tuesday Jazzidency series.

Featuring Steven Blum on keyboards and drummer Jason Levis, Junior Reggae is an instrumental ensemble that was born in Berkeley. Ewing and Levis have been making music together since their undergrad days in Boulder at Naropa University (where they both studied with piano legend Art Lande). Since arriving in the Bay Area in the early aughts, they’ve played in a variety of settings together, but it was reggae that forged their connection as a rhythm-section tandem. As the director of the Jazzschool Community Music School, Ewing was on hand when Levis, an associate professor at the California Jazz Conservatory, needed a bassist for a reggae class. … Continue reading »

Strings on steroids… This ain’t no chamber music

Mimi Fox plays Freight & Salvage Wednesday with the SF String Trio. Photo by Michael Oletta
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If you don’t know the players involved, the SF String Trio’s name might lead you to expect a polite new addition to the Bay Area chamber music scene. That would be wrong. Featuring master improvisers and commanding virtuosos who project the energy and intensity of a power trio, the collective with guitarist Mimi Fox, violinist Mads Tolling and bassist Jeff Denson makes its Bay Area debut 8 p.m. Wednesday at Freight & Salvage.

“We aim to disrupt people who are sipping wine,” says Fox with a wicked chuckle. “We aim to start trouble. All of us try to play our instruments to the full measure of what each can offer.”

Fox established herself as one of the Bay Area’s most formidable guitarists more than two decades ago, joining the ranks of jazz’s guitar royalty while performing and recording a multi-generational array fret stars from Charlie Byrd, Kenny Burrell, and Mundell Lowe to Charlie Hunter, Stanley Jordan and Patty Larkin. With 10 albums to her credit as a leader or co-leader, she released a definitive statement with 2006’s Perpetually Hip on Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label. A double CD, the first disc captures Fox stretching out with a stellar quartet featuring bassist Harvie S, pianist Xavier Davis and drum maestro Billy Hart (the subject of a career-honoring retrospective at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival in June), while the second disc is a solo tour de force, a format she’s made a central part of her career as a performer. … Continue reading »

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Do you know what it means to miss Port Au Prince? Emeline Michel plays Zellerbach

Emeline Michel performs Saturday as part of globalFEST Creole Carnival at Zellerbach. Photo by Eleonore Coyette.
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On a recent Tuesday Lower Sproul Plaza teemed with grade school children wearing Mardi Gras beads, buzzing, twirling and blinking in the sunlight after a Cal Performances matinee SchoolTime concert by Haitian star Emeline Michel. Inside of Zellerbach, Michel seemed equally energized after the show, a preview of the music she’ll be performing 8 p.m. Saturday as part of globalFEST: Creole Carnival, a Cal Performances triple bill with the great Rio samba band Casuarina and Jamaican guitar master Brushy One String.

“The kids don’t hold anything back,” says Michel, who last performed in the Bay Area at Stern Grove in 2007, opening for Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective. “These are some of the most fun events that I do.”

Often described as the Joni Mitchell of Haiti, Michel is a singer/songwriter, dancer, producer and activist who has come to embody her homeland’s vital culture and resilient spirit. Combining folkloric Haitian rhythms and contemporary styles like topical compas and celebratory rara with jazz, samba and bossa nova, she’s a captivating performer who divides her time between Port Au Prince and New York City (when she’s not touring internationally).  … Continue reading »

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Benefit for Kevin Vance and the UC Theatre opens (really!)

Kevin Vance hosting the Front Porch Stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2015 
(courtesy of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival)
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Kevin Vance has spent his life sharing his love of music over the airwaves, and now many of the musicians he’s championed are demonstrating their abiding appreciation for his efforts. Struggling with underemployment, Vance has fallen on hard times, a situation exacerbated by a prostate cancer diagnosis last year. On Saturday, a stellar roster of roots musicians will hold a benefit concert for Vance at Ashkenaz to help him to stay in his one-bedroom Berkeley apartment.

Organized by fellow KALW DJ Dore Stein, the influential conduit for international music and host of Tangents, the concert features roots-rocker Maurice Tani, the powerhouse all-women quartet Blame Sally, fellow KPFA radio host and global didgeridoo master Stephen Kent, and Thompsonia, the tuneful new band that brings Berkeley roots music stalwarts Eric and Suzy Thompson together with their daughter Allegra. … Continue reading »

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Herding unicorns: Irene Sazer, the Real Vocal String Quartet

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Long-time Berkeleyan Irene Sazer didn’t set out to capture unicorns. But in creating the Real Vocal String Quartet about a decade ago she had to find a particularly rare, almost mythical, species of musician: conservatory-trained string players comfortable with free improvisation and versed in an international array of styles from South America and Appalachia to West Africa and the Balkans. And oh yeah, they also have to possess considerable vocal skills. Despite a penchant for her violists to running off to study composition in graduate school Sazer has managed to maintain an exceptionally versatile cast, and she brings the latest edition of the RVSQ to Freight & Salvage 8 p.m. Thursday.

Joining founding violinists Sazer and Alisa Rose are violist Darcy Rindt and cellist Vanessa Ruotolo, who have taken over for violist Matthias McIntire (now enrolled in a doctoral composition program at the University of Toronto), and cellist Jessica Ivry (who’s busy tending to her baby girl). The new quartet is celebrating the release of Slacker Ridge, a six-song EP featuring the previous line up. Expanding on the band’s 2009 eponymous debut album and 2012 follow up, Four Little Sisters, the new recording is as stylistically unfettered and hard to pin down as ever, with strikingly lapidary arrangements ranging from the Appalachian standard “Cluck Old Hen” and Sazer’s gorgeous pop “I Keep You Safe,” to a bevy of Rose’s luscious instrumental pieces and McIntire’s anxiously kinetic “California Residents Blissful Despite Impending Earthquake” (no wonder he’s in Toronto). … Continue reading »

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Buika takes Berkeley! Jessica Jones returns home! Pamela Z zaps BAMPFA!

Buika (photo courtesy of the artist)
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Let us now praise awesome women. When it comes to music, this town makes it all too easy to celebrate Women’s History Month. In the coming days, a veritable tsunami of bodaciously talented women are sweeping over the city, and you can catch several without trying too hard.

Let’s start with Buika, the extravagantly gifted Spanish vocalist presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall 8 p.m. Saturday. She arrives in Berkeley at the start of a national tour with a new band and a startling new repertoire, particularly for fans smitten with her soul-baring flamenco and impassioned rancheras from her star-making 2009 collaboration with Cuban piano maestro Chucho Valdés, El Último Trago (Warner Music). Her latest album, Vivir Sin Miedo (DRO) is her first focusing on her original tunes. Drawing on an array of influences, from reggae, rock and Afrobeat to R&B, funk and jazz, the majority of her songs feature English lyrics.

Like a shot of good tequila, interviewing Buika is always a bracing experience. Even over the phone she exudes protean power, speaking with unguarded emotion. A poet, filmmaker, and music producer, she refuses to constrain her creative impulses, which is why she titled her new album To Live Without Fear. She’s joined by a disparate cast of collaborators, including Meshell Ndegeocello, flamenco singer Potito, British session keyboard star Glen Scott, and singer/songwriter Jason Mraz. … Continue reading »

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Michael Blake brings Tiddy Boom to Berkeley

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Distance isn’t supposed to matter for performers anymore. Skype and MP3s, Dropbox, the cloud, YouTube and other digital purveyors make far-flung collaborations as easy as a mouse click. But for musicians who thrive on actually performing in front of audiences the distance between the coasts can feel longer than ever.

Tenor saxophonist Michael Blake, a creative force on the New York jazz scene for the past three decades, makes his Bay Area debut under his own name Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory (he gives a workshop on improvisation earlier in the day). He’s performing with the same prodigious quartet featured on his 2014 album Tiddy Boom (Sunnyside), a cast of bandleader and composers that includes bassist Ben Allison, pianist Frank Kimbrough, and drummer Rudy Royston (who played a breathtaking show at Yoshi’s last month with trumpeter Dave Douglas). … Continue reading »

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Destani Wolf: Headlining ‘Just Like A Woman’ in Berkeley

Destani Wolf performs Saturday in Rhonda Benin's "Just Like A Woman" at Freight & Salvage. 
Photo by Gabriel Noble.
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With her 1000-watt smile and huge, soul-drenched voice, Destani Wolf doesn’t tend to go unnoticed for long. But after 12 years of carving out a music career in Los Angeles, the Berkeley-raised vocalist quietly slipped back into town last September. She makes her first headlining appearance since returning to Berkeley 8 p.m. Saturday at Freight & Salvage as part of Rhonda Benin’s 4th “Just Like a Woman” extravaganza.

“This is a reintroduction for me, an announcement that I’m back in the Bay Area,” says Wolf, who graduated from Berkeley High in 1994. “I needed some time to transition. I’m a musician and a mom to two boys, and for me it’s about getting my family settled. They’re my inspiration.” … Continue reading »

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On the couch with Berkeley’s David Weisberg, playwright of Central Works’ premiere, ‘Totem and Taboo’

Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden (Caleb Cabrera and Bob Greene), unveil the mascot of their beloved Raccoon Lodge during a drug-induced dream journey to The Honeymooners in Central Works, 
Totem & Taboo by David Weisberg.
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With Max Halberstadt’s iconic photo of the stern, cigar-bearing Sigmund Freud hanging over the mantle, the efficient set for David Weisberg’s new play Totem and Taboo signals it’s heading into deep psychological waters from the get-go. A mashup of political diatribe, hallucinatory sitcom, and Greek tragedy, it’s a gloriously unruly three-act farce that gleefully gnaws on enough material for any three productions. I caught the Feb. 20 opening night performance, which kicks off Central Works’ twenty-sixth season, and I’m still thinking about some of the scabrous lines and and biting indictments.

Running through March 20 at the historic Berkeley City Club, Totem and Taboo centers on the pharmacological breakdown of Ralph, an unaffiliated political philosopher and stay-at-home dad who finds himself in the midst of a harrowing but hilarious episode of The Honeymooners. His frustration centers on his inability to find a publisher for his magnum opus, a book he believes reveals the false promise behind liberalism’s blank slate, arguing that humans are by nature tribal. … Continue reading »

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Plucky Strum kicks off Bay Area run in Berkeley, and Mary D’Orazi goes ‘from Brasil to Bacharach’

Guitarist Sheryl Bailey and bassist Harvie S are Plucky Strum. Photo by Nick Carter.
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While the name sounds like it should come attached to a 1920s shortstop or a rodeo star, Plucky Strum actually refers to a duo pairing Sheryl Bailey and Harvie S, two of jazz’s most prodigious players. A quietly dazzling partnership dedicated to a diverse repertoire of original compositions arranged for standup bass and acoustic guitar, Plucky Strum kicks off a wide-ranging series of concerts around the region 4:30 pm Sunday at the California Jazz Conservatory (drum maestro Akira Tana joins the action at Armando’s in Martinez on Wednesday, Feb 24, and the duo returns to the CJC on Feb. 28 for a workshop).

Neighbors in the Bronx, S and Bailey started getting together to play informally a few years ago, and before long they decided to turn their playfully virtuosic rapport into an act “The main thing is I love playing duo,” says Bailey, 49, who’s performed extensively in duo settings with fellow guitarists such as Howard Alden, Paul Bollenback, and Jack Wilkins. … Continue reading »

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Ryan Keberle & Catharsis: Is Berkeley Brooklyn west?

Ryan Keberle & Catharsis make their Bay Area debut Tuesday at the Berkeley Arts Festival space. L to r, Camila Meza, Jorge Roeder, Keberle, Eric Doob, Michael Rodriguez
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Scanning the February music listings it seems like Berkeley has become the western-most neighborhood of Brooklyn, with a steady stream of exceptional improvisational ensembles performing in intimate settings.

Last week, the Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet played a breathtaking set at the California Jazz Conservatory. On Sunday percussionist Ches Smith returns to the Bay Area with his trio featuring pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri for a concert at the Berkeley Arts Festival space, where trombonist Ryan Keberle makes his Bay Area debut as a bandleader with Catharsis on Tuesday (as part of a double bill with Berkeley clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg‘s group featuring alto saxophonist Kasey Knudsen and drummer Hamir Atwal).

What these three groups have in common, aside from residing in New York City, is that they’ve all forged intensely distinctive group sounds employing unorthodox instrumentation. Smith, who lived in Albany for a decade, earned a graduate degree from Mills and describes formative experiences catching concerts at the lamented downtown Berkeley venue Beanbenders, moves unpredictably between trap set, percussion and vibraphone, giving his compositions a different inflection with each performance. … Continue reading »

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New York City comes to Berkeley: Rez Abbasi’s RAAQ

The Res Abbasi Acoustic Quartet plays the California Jazz Conservatory Friday
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Born in Pakistan’s teeming commercial metropolis Karachi, and raised in the Southern California suburb of Torrance, jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi always seems to be working at the crossroads of contrasting musical realms. He performed at the SFJazz Center last year with breathtaking vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia, who draws on Punjabi folk song, love-besotted ghazels, and North African cadences. And back in 2010, he made a powerful impression at Yoshi’s with award-winning alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo Pak Coalition, a trio playing a singular synthesis of jazz and South Asian forms.

Long based in New York City, he returns to the Bay Area for a concert 8 p.m. Friday at the California Jazz Conservatory with the Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet (RAAQ), a band that bridges a very different kind of musical divide (they also teach an improvisation workshop at the CJC Saturday afternoon). Featuring powerhouse drummer Eric McPherson, who spent 15 years with alto sax great Jackie McLean, and bassist Stephan Crump, a member of pianist Vijay Iyer’s celebrated trio, the band’s latest album Intents and Purposes (Enja) recasts classic jazz/rock fusion tunes in an acoustic setting. Abbas designed the project to explore an era he had largely overlooked, when acts like Weather Report, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Tony Williams Lifetime attained the stature of rock stars. … Continue reading »

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End of the road for Berkeley’s Subterranean Arthouse

Subt with Maya Dorn in distance- photo: Claire Duplantier
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News that the Subterranean Arthouse is closing didn’t come as a complete surprise, but that doesn’t make the loss of the inviting downtown performance and exhibition space any less disappointing.

Founded seven years ago by Claire Duplantier and Nicole Rodriguez, the intimate storefront at 2179 Bancroft Way in the Odd Fellows Building quickly became a vital hub for a disparate array of artists, teachers and organizations. But, over the past year, as the space transitioned from focusing on evening performances to daytime classes, noise complaints from other tenants in the building and rising rent led to an impasse. As of February, the Arthouse will cease to exist, and the space will be made available for other tenants.

“It’s been seven years since we started it and so much has happened in that time,” said Duplantier, who started phasing out of running the Arthouse about a year ago when she had a baby. “It’s sad that it’s closing. So many amazing people have come through, and I’ve learned and grown so much. I want to focus on celebrating the Arthouse’s contributions more than feeling angry at the Odd Fellows. We started in 2009 and people would tell us, you’re crazy, starting a business now. It was so much fun and we made it work.” … Continue reading »

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