Author Archives: Andrew Gilbert

Kronos Quartet’s ‘Strange Fruit’ Saturday at Zellerbach

Kronos Quartet--John Sherba, Sunny Yang, Hank Dutt and David Harrington-- perform at Zellerbach Hall on Saturday.  Photo by Jay Blakesberg.
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Kronos Quartet lives in the vanguard. The celebrated San Francisco string ensemble returns to Zellerbach Hall Saturday for a Cal Performances concert with three new works from Fifty for the Future, a program that turbo charges the group’s longtime practice of commissioning and presenting music by young composers.

But the emotional centerpiece of Saturday’s concert is likely to be the Bay Area premiere of ‘Strange Fruit,’ a song that was written and recorded before any members of Kronos were born. Arranged by trombonist Jacob Garchik, a gifted New York-based improviser and composer who’s collaborated widely with Kronos over the past decade, the anti-lynching anthem made famous by Billie Holiday has taken on a new resonance.

Berkeleyside recently caught up with Kronos violinist David Harrington just after he returned from a European tour, where the quartet performed the arrangement in Warsaw as the third encore “in a program of music written by Jewish composers,” Harrington said. “I introduced it saying that in my opinion this song is right at the center of most of the problems that exist in our country.” … Continue reading »

KPFA honors Phil Elwood, jazz critic, pioneering disc jockey

Phil Elwood on the job at KPFA. The station dedicates the Phil Elwood Music Library on Saturday, before airing a documentary about his legacy at 2 p.m.
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FM radio was an obscure broadcasting technology when Phil Elwood started sending out jazz over the airwaves on KPFA, a station that was just three years old when he came on board in 1952.

On Saturday afternoon the station honors one of its foundational voices when the Phil Elwood Music Library is dedicated to the late disc jockey before an 80-minute radio documentary about Elwood’s legacy airs at 2 p.m. It’s a labor of love spearheaded by Elwood’s son, Berkeley resident Josh Elwood, who has been taking care of his father’s vast archive of interviews, articles and broadcasts. Elwood died at the age of 79 in January 2006, just one month after his wife Audrey.

A radio pioneer, Elwood was one of the first people to spin jazz records on an FM station when he started his “Jazz Archive” program on KPFA in 1952, a weekly show that ran until 1996. The son of UC Berkeley agriculture professor Clifford Franklin Elwood, he was a proud Berkeleyan who graduated from Berkeley High in 1943. He earned a history degree from Cal, served in the Navy, and spent several decades teaching history at Albany High (the great jazz singer Denise Perrier was one of his students). … Continue reading »

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Berkeley Arts Festival space closes; Jake Shandling is back

Priced out of Oakland, Jake Shandling returns to Jupiter on Saturday.
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No one expected the Berkeley Arts Festival space to last as long as it did. The storefront venue, at 2133 University Ave., opened in the summer of 2011, the latest in a string of found spaces procured by Bonnie Hughes that have enlivened Berkeley’s arts scene with a steady flow of musical performances, classes, theater and dance.

Several weeks ago, word came down that construction of the 205-unit Acheson Commons apartment complex is ready to proceed, and the venue’s final performance takes place 8:30 p.m. Monday with the premiere of Oakland saxophonist/composer Phillip Greenlief’s “Index,” a conducted improvisation featuring the sprawling OrcheSperry.

Over the past five years Greenlief has performed in the rough-hewn room in a wide array of settings, while also coordinating shows by an improbably impressive array of touring artists. “I feel so lucky I’ve been able to book things there,” Greenlief says. “A lot of people are still on the road trying to promote the music. You can’t always get a gig at SFJAZZ, Yoshi’s or Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a space. It’s been golden. In the best sense of the word it’s a great community space, so low key and informal.” … Continue reading »

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Drummer Ruthie Price’s ‘Sounds of Life’

Ruth Price's Sounds of Life plays the California Jazz Conservatory 8 p.m. Friday. Photo by Esther Karibe.
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As a rambunctious child with a precocious feel for rhythm, Ruthie Price saw any available surface as a potential piece of percussion

“I was beating around on everything and broke a coffee table at five,” she admits. “At church I’d sit by the drums. My foster mom bought me a kit at six, and I’ve been playing drums ever.”

Now the Oakland-raised Price is one of the region’s premiere drummers, a player sought out by singer/songwriters, jazz ensembles, R&B combos and various genre-blending permutations thereof. She’s provided an array of beats for Rhonda Benin’s annual Just Like a Woman revue at Freight & Salvage, and propelled Fantastic Negrito to his career-making January 2015 triumph in NPR’s first Tiny Desk Concert Contest.

But these days she’s putting as much energy into developing her own music as she is into accompanying other acts. Price presents her Sounds of Life ensemble 8 p.m. Friday at the California Jazz Conservatory, a band featuring Berkeley native Maya Kronfeld on piano, bassist Aneesa Al-Musawwir (a.k.a. Aneesa Strings), and vocalist Viveca Hawkins, a graduate of Berkeley High who fronts Mars Volta drummer Thomas Pridgen’s stripped down garage band The Memorials … Continue reading »

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Spanish jazz pianist Alex Conde’s flamenco soul

Pianist Alex Conde performs at the California Jazz Conservatory Sunday afternoon with John Santos and Jeff Chambers. Photo: Courtesy of the artist
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Oakland pianist Alex Conde isn’t the first musician to uncover the kindred roots linking jazz and flamenco. Born of diaspora, longing and communal celebration, the traditions share African lineage and an improvisational imperative. On the American side, jazz and flamenco first came together memorably on Charles Mingus’s uproarious 1957 masterpiece Tijuana Moods, and Miles Davis hugely popular 1960 collaboration with Gil Evans Sketches of Spain (which is more a moody evocation of Spanish folklore than a flamenco-infused project). Spanish saxophonist Pedro Iturralde and rising guitar legend Paco de Lucía offered an unprecedented synthesis with 1968’s Jazz Flamenco, a session more talked about than heard.

Conde, a conservatory-trained Spanish pianist who moved to the Bay Area in 2009 to compose for local flamenco dance companies, contributed one of the finest examples of this still emerging hybrid with 2015’s Descarga for Monk (ZoHo Music), a set of classic Thelonious Monk compositions ingeniously reimagined as emotionally scorching flamenco. He performs Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory with bass master Jeff Chambers and percussion maestro John Santos, who are both featured on the album.

“I didn’t want to do the usual thing, getting a tune and imposing a rhythm on top of it,” says Conde. “I’d play for a tune for a couple of hours and if it didn’t feel natural. I drop it. I decided to keep respect the melodies, but took freedom to change the chords as much as I like.” … Continue reading »

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Ethiopian singer, legend Mahmoud Ahmed plays Berkeley

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At 75, Mahmoud Ahmed doesn’t jump as high or shake as ecstatically as he once did, but the Ethiopian superstar is still a magnificent entertainer with a vast treasure trove of songs set to infectiously rippling grooves. A vocalist and composer who defined the cosmopolitan Addis Ababa scene when its thrumming energy made it an East African counterpart to swinging London, Mahmoud has survived the fall of an emperor and a long reign of Marxist terror, a calamitous famine and bloody civil war. He arrives at Zellerbach Friday for the Cal Performances double bill “Afropop Spectacular” as a singular, unifying figure for his ancient, ethnically riven nation, a status he maintains through his indefatigable generosity as a performer (Mali’s Trio Da Kali opens the concert).

“I have seen dozens and dozens of concerts with Mahmoud all around the world, and I’ve have never seen him give a bad concert,” says Francis Falceto, who introduced Mahmoud and dozens of other Ethiopian musicians to the West via his invaluable 29-album Ethiopiques reissue series, speaking from France via Skype. “He jumps less high, but he’s always giving, giving. In Carnegie Hall last week people were standing by the third song, then they’d sit. By the second half everyone was standing the rest of the show, even way up in the balconies, which is something to see! He’s an incredible entertainer. It is his life to be on stage.” … Continue reading »

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Sofia Rei brings new Latin American sound from New York

Photo by Sandrine Lee.
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Sofia Rei, a singer and multi-instrumentalist born and raised in Buenos Aires, remembers the rising feeling of indignation when a New England Conservatory classmate asked her sing a nueva canción standard at a concert. She had grown up hearing her mother’s Mercedes Sosa albums, “but I never had any interest in performing that music,” says Rei, who makes her Berkeley debut Friday at La Peña with two New York colleagues, Peruvian bassist Jorge Roeder and Colombian percussionist Tupac Mantilla.

“When I moved to Boston I was very interested in vocal improvisation and jazz, and wanted to learn more about that, but people here see you in a different way than you see yourself,” says Rei, who initially performed and recorded under her full name, Sofia Rei Koutsovitis. “When somebody at school said why don’t you sing something from Argentina? I thought, the same old story, you ask the Argentine to sings an Argentine song. I want to be a jazz singer, come on!”

After getting over her pique, Rei not only collaborated with her classmate, she put together an entire program of Latin American songs. After years of crooning American Songbook standards and Jobim’s bossa nova classics, the experience of performing in Spanish was an epiphany. … Continue reading »

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Jeff Denson’s ever widening circle

The Jeff Denson Quartet plays the California Jazz Conservatory on Friday. Photo by A-Retrospective.
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Starting a record label in the 21st century might seem like a fool’s errand, what with collapsing CD sales and streaming services that offer less than a pittance per thousands of plays. But jazz bassist/vocalist Jeff Denson offers an object lesson in the power of a savvy and well-curated outlet. Over the past year, his new label Ridgeway Records has released a series of stellar recordings introducing some of the region’s most promising young artists, like Berkeley-reared guitarist/composer Ian Faquini’s Metal Na Madeira.

The label is also a vehicle for his own music, and Denson celebrates the release of his latest Ridgeway album, Concentric Circles, Friday at the California Jazz Conservatory, where he’s a founding professor in the school’s accredited college program. Featuring bassoon virtuoso Paul Hanson, pianist Den Zemelman and drum maestro Alan Hall — who released a fantastic Ridgeway album Artic introducing his Ratatet with Hanson and Denson earlier this year — the quartet brings together two earlier ensembles.

Denson first performed around the Bay Area with Hall and Hanson in Electreo, a texturally acute collective trio that explored a constellation of spacious compositions laced with Hanson’s finely calibrated electronics. He forged a deep connection with Zemelman when he recruited the pianist into a trio designed to accompany octogenarian alto sax legend Lee Konitz, a group documented on the first Ridgeway album The Jeff Denson Trio + Lee Konitz. … Continue reading »

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A Moroccan journey with Yassir Chadly and Howard Wiley’s Cannonball

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Sufi mystic and Berkeley Recreation aquatics specialist, master of traditional North African instruments, storyteller, and pioneering jazz improviser, Yassir Chadly contains multitudes. Over the years he’s recorded with jazz luminaries such as Randy Weston, Pharoah Sanders, and Omar Sosa, but musically he’s been sticking close to home since the 2012 death of trumpeter Khalil Shaheed. Together, they founded the Mo’Rockin Project, a band that fused traditional Moroccan songs with jazz and R&B, a repertoire Chadly hopes to revisit someday. Until he locates the right partner the Casablanca-born multi-instrumentalist can be found playing traditional music, as when he returns to Ashkenaz Friday with a group of East Bay Moroccan musicians including percussionist Mostafa Raiss El Fenni, who owns Sahara Import on Piedmont Avenue.

“I like to show the people raw Moroccan music, no preservatives,” says Chadly from his house in El Sobrante, where he and his wife recently settled after decades in Oakland. “People like to hear something authentic, as if they’re in Morocco, so they don’t have to travel.”

An informal ensemble that practices at Sahara Imports, Chadly and the Moroccans draw on a shared repertoire of celebratory wedding songs, incantatory Sufi trance music and Gnawa grooves, a tradition brought to the Maghreb in past centuries by West Africans. A skilled percussionist and string player known for his work on oud, castanet-like karkabas, goblet-drum darbuka, and frame-drum bendir, he often leads the ensemble from the three-string bass-like ginbri (or sintir). … Continue reading »

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Two chances to see jazz pianist Myra Melford in Berkeley

Myra Melford performs Tuesday with Ben Goldberg at the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space. 
Photo by Bryan Murray.
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One of the pleasures of jazz is that it’s possible to experience the music’s most profound improvisers in grand concert halls and storefront dives, some times in the same week. Take pianist Myra Melford. Last month, the pianist performed with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra when Wynton Marsalis’s big band kicked off its home season in New York performing her rambunctious tune “The Strawberry” (she joined the orchestra in Oakland last week, reprising the arrangement at the Paramount Theatre).

In a radical change of setting, Melford performs Tuesday at the Berkeley Arts Festival space with clarinetist Ben Goldberg as part of 2 + 2, a double duo program with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tom Rainey. Returning to a grander stage, she’ll be at Zellerbach Hall on Nov. 19 when Cal Performances presents her celebrated band Snowy Egret playing her multimedia work Language of Dreams. Before the concert I’m presenting her with the Jazz Journalists Association award for Midsize Ensemble of the Year.

The JJA honor is just the latest that Melford has earned over the past decade, a gloriously productive period during which she’s been recognized with numerous awards, fellowships, commissions and grants that speak to her rarified status in the jazz firmament. As a pianist, composer, bandleader and music professor at UC Berkeley, she’s earned international esteem as an artist extending idioms introduced in the 1960s and 70s by left-field innovators such as Henry Threadgill, Leroy Jenkins, and Don Pullen. … Continue reading »

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Music scene blossoms in downtown Berkeley

Sam Rudin's new living-room style venue, the Backroom, seeks to fill a void in downtown Berkeley. (Photo courtesy Sam Rudin)
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In Berkeley, everything old is new again, at least when it comes to music venues. Sam Rudin, a jazzy blues pianist (or a bluesy jazz pianist, depending on the gig) has opened his new club The Backroom, based on the original Freight & Salvage, the venerable Berkeley folk music spot where he played frequently after moving to the Bay Area in the early 1980s. Intimate and comfy, with rows of couches, impeccable sound, and unobstructed sight lines, the Backroom fills an East Bay void by providing an ideal living-room environment for singer/songwriters, small jazz combos, and bluegrass bands.

Rudin used the old Freight as a model because the institution’s third incarnation, a glorious 490-seat venue two blocks away in the downtown Berkeley Arts District, is simply too big for many of the artists who once performed at the original storefront. There, on San Pablo Avenue, was “where I established myself as a performer,” says Rudin, a.k.a. Hurricane Sam. “Not having similar places after it moved was always a disappointment. Anna’s Jazz Island was my next home, but the original Freight had a hold on my imagination.” … Continue reading »

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From Brazil to Berkeley and back: Ian Faquini’s journey

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Ian Faquini’s Brazilian identity was never in doubt. Born in the nation’s futuristic capital Brasilia, he moved with his parents to Berkeley just in time to finish second grade, and grew up speaking Portuguese at home. But it wasn’t until the revered Brazilian guitarist/composer Guinga took him under his wing that Faquini immersed himself in the music of his homeland. In recent years he’s emerged as one of the most gifted young guitarists and songwriters working in Brazilian music, and he celebrates the release of his debut album Metal na Madeira (Ridgeway Records) with Rio de Janiero-based vocalist Paula Santoro 8 p.m. Friday at the California Jazz Conservatory.

Even before he discovered Guinga, Faquini was obsessed with music. Interested in different instruments as a child, he found his soulmate when he got an acoustic guitar for his 11th birthday. “It was impossible for me not to practice,” says Faquini, who just turned 26. “My mom would say, haven’t you been playing too much? I had a band in middle school and would make them have six-to-eight hour rehearsals.” … Continue reading »

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Mark Summer explores life after Turtle Island

Mark Summer and Ken Cook are the duo Celloland. Photo by Silos Napa.
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Cuban reed virtuoso Paquito D’Rivera likes to call Mark Summer a barking cat, which is actually a compliment. As a cellist well-versed in improvisation, Summer is as rare as a woofing feline, though his three-decade run with two-time Grammy Award-winning Turtle Island Quartet has paved the way for several generations of conservatory-trained cellists with at least one foot in jazz. In his first East Bay concert since leaving Turtle Island in 2015 Summer introduces his new duo with veteran jazz pianist Ken Cook, Celloland, 7 p.m. Sunday at Freight & Salvage.

D’Rivera got to know Summer well while collaborating on the 2002 Turtle Island String Quartet album Danzón (Koch International), back before the group dropped “string” from its name. He was so impressed with Summer’s skills and versatility that he launched the Jazz Chamber Trio, a group “that I wouldn’t have thought possible before meeting Mark,” D’Rivera said in an interview around the time of the group’s Grammy-nominated 2005 eponymous debut album on Chesky.

Celloland offers another opportunity for Summer to explore his love of jazz and Latin American music. Cook, who holds the Jazz Piano chair in Sonoma State University’s Jazz Studies Department and has studied in Cuba, works regularly with vocalists Terrie Odabi and Deborah Winters, Brazilian guitarist Ricardo Peixoto, and Latin jazz flutist John Calloway. Together they’ve developed a far-ranging repertoire at the crossroads of jazz, European classical music and various South American traditions, with tunes by Brazil’s Egberto Gismonti and Pixinguinha, Argentina’s Nuevo tango maestro Astor Piazzolla, and jazz greats Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett (with some Jimi Hendrix and J.S. Bach thrown in for good measure).

“Ken is a very sympathetic musical partner,” says Summer, 58, who settled in Novato after several years in Berkeley in the mid-aughts. “I heard him with his trio a few years ago and was blown away. We started talking and quickly realized we shared a love of Keith Jarrett and Latin music.” … Continue reading »

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