Author Archives: Andrew Gilbert

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 »


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 »


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 »


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 »


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 »


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 »


Perla Batalla’s luxuriant House of Cohen in Berkeley

Perla Batalla returns to Berkeley for the first time in three decades, but she's still singing the songs of Leonard Cohen, at Freight & Salvage Saturday.
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The last time Perla Batalla performed in Berkeley it was July 11, 1988, she was in her early 20s, and had recently joined Leonard Cohen. His album I’m Your Man had come out in February to rapturous reviews, and he arrived at Zellerbach at the start of a North American tour with Batalla and Julie Christensen, two “stylish and mischievous” backup singers, in the words of Sylvie Simmons, author of the superlative biography I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen.

Batalla spent several years on the road with Cohen, and with his support and encouragement she’s evolved into a captivating singer/songwriter in her own right. But for her return to Berkeley 8 p.m. Saturday at Freight & Salvage she decided to celebrate his music with her show “House of Cohen,” a project that grew out of Hal Wilner’s 2003 Cohen tribute concert “Came So Far For Beauty.”

Cohen himself recruited her for that project, and she ended up recording an exquisite album exploring his music, Bird On the Wire: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (Mechuda Music). “At first I didn’t understand that he wanted me to sing lead,” Batalla says from her home in Ojai. “I couldn’t fathom singing lead, but he was very encouraging and it was an amazing experience.” … Continue reading »


The unforgettable Sixties at Ashkenaz in Berkeley

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Over in San Francisco, the legacy of the psychedelic era might be shrouded by severed synapses. As Grace Slick (or was it Paul Kantner?) said, “If you can remember the 60s, you weren’t there.” Well, Joe McDonald was there, and he recalls just about everything. Working with the Berkeley Historical Society, he’s busy preparing for the Summer of Love’s 50th anniversary with an October 2017 exhibition, “Soundtrack to the 60s: The Berkeley Music Scene.”

Looking to raise awareness of the project, Country Joe and the Electric Music Band performs songs from the Country Joe and the Fish repertoire at the Berkeley Boogie benefit Saturday at Ashkenaz. The program also features a rare reunion of three original members of another signature Berkeley ensemble, Joy of Cooking (with Terri Garthwaite, David Garthwaite and Fritz Kasten), as well as activist singer/songwriter Hali Hammer, Peter Krug and others. Funds raised by the event will go to support Ashkenaz and the exhibition, but the concert is also an effort to glean support and memorabilia. … Continue reading »


It all comes together in Darren Johnston’s Broken Shadows

San Francisco trumpeter Darren Johnston's Broken Shadows plays the Starry Plough Friday night. Photo by Julie Caine.
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Any Bay Area music fan with adventuresome ears has likely come across trumpeter Darren Johnston some time in the past two decades. Maybe he was playing celebratory Balkan music with Brass Menažeri. Or rough and tumble free jazz with the collective quartet Cylinder. Or Ethio-soul with singer/songwriter Meklit Hadero, chamber world jazz with the Nice Guy Trio, or straight ahead post-bop with Erik Jekabson’s Electric Squeezebox Orchestra. He’s the kind musician who elevates any situation he finds himself in, and for the past several years the Canadian-born Johnston has honed a poetic program of original songs in Broken Shadows, which draws from an unlikely array of traditions and styles.

Johnston preforms with Broken Shadows Friday at the Starry Plough on a double bill with guitarist Alex Hand’s Gypsy jazz-influenced combo. Featuring Johnston on trumpet and vocals, Berkeley violinist Matthew Szemela, pedal-steel guitarist David Phillips, guitarist Jordan Samuels, Miles Wick on bass and vocals, and drummer/percussionist Jordan Glenn, Broken Shadows in less a specific ensemble than a community of players who have embraced Johnston’s supremely catholic sound. … Continue reading »


Reeling in the tears at the Starry Plough with Crying Time

Myles Boisen, Jill Randall, Tim Rowe and Peter Garellick play heartbreaking music in Crying Time, Saturday at the Starry Plough. Photo by Jenya Chernoff.
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Sometimes a band’s name tells you everything you need to know. With a moniker cadged from Buck Owens’s oft-covered 1966 country standard, Crying Time is an East Bay combo devoted to the gloriously rhinestoned collision between Nashville country and Los Angeles pop. The band celebrates the release of its second album, Linda, 9 p.m. Saturday at the Starry Plough as part of a triple bill with Bear Flag Trio and Danny Allen’s High Diving Horses.

Featuring North Oakland vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Jill Rogers, her younger Berkeley-based brother Peter Garellick on bass and vocal harmonies, drummer Tim Rowe, and Myles Boisen on guitar, lap steel and vocals, the quartet has honed a lachrymose repertoire of Glen Campbell, Freddy Fender, and George Jones and Tammy Wynette, along with excellent originals that powerfully evoke the same era. Pedal steel guitar legend Bobby Black contributes to a few tracks on the album, but won’t be joining them at the Starry Plough.

The band released its debut album Ten Golden Hits, last year on vinyl and for download. Like that project, Linda was recorded at Boisen’s Guerilla Studio with analog sound akin to the classic country music from which Crying Time draws inspiration. The title can be understood in several ways, referring to Linda Ronstadt and in Spanish it means“pretty,” which “definitely applies to these beautiful sad songs,” Boisen says. … Continue reading »


One guitar. One week. One song. The Acoustic Guitar Project comes to Berkeley

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If the Acoustic Guitar Project demonstrates nothing else, it offers a potent reminder that no matter where you live there’s nothing like an impending deadline to provide motivational power. A global concert series that’s taking place in 43 cities around the world, the AGP proceeds with a simple conceit. Every selected artist gets a guitar for one week and a commission to compose and record one song on the instrument in that time period, no editing allowed.

What started as a one-instrument lark in New York City in five years ago has quickly ballooned into an international undertaking, with the second Bay Area installment premiering next Saturday Aug. 27 at Freight & Salvage. Curated by Berkeley musician Steve Gallup, a guitarist who spent years touring with the roots rock band Hipshakers, he tapped five local singer/songwriters for the project, including Jessie Bridges, Steve Meckfessel, Jeff Desira, DB Walker, and Jill McAnally. The videos that each artist recorded of themselves playing their song are posted on the project’s website.

“I’ve always liked all kinds of music, but the curatorial process was kind of intimidating,” says Gallup, who settled in North Berkeley about three years ago after decades in Half Moon Bay. “The first person I contacted was Jill McAnally. She and her husband had a big rig they drove for 15 years out of Texas. She’s the real deal and comes by her voice and music in such an authentic way.” … Continue reading »


Waking up to Asleep at the Wheel’s Chris O’Connell

Former Asleep at the Wheel vocalist Chris O'Connell plays her first show in Berkeley in three decades Saturday at The Back Room with her band the SmartAlleks
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Chris O’Connell was only 18 when she signed up for the ride of her life. A shy young woman with a big bold voice, she joined Asleep at the Wheel in 1970 when the incipient western swing juggernaut was still shacked up in West Virginia, woodshedding a repertoire of Grand Ole Opry standards. She spent 15 tumultuous years with the band, including nine albums and Asleep’s first Grammy Award, but largely left her performing career aside after leaving the band to raise her daughter.

Since moving back to the East Bay in 2010 O’Connell has gradually started establishing a career under her own name, and she plays her first Berkeley gig in some three decades 8 p.m. Saturday at the Back Room with her band the SmartAlecks and a special guest, pedal steel great Bobby Black.

“I’ve known Bobby for 40 years and have had the pleasure of touring with him and doing plenty of pick-up jobs with him over the years,” says O’Connell, who lives in Alameda. “He played with the Wheel for a time in the ’80s, but we met in Oakland in ’71. The Wheel’s first California demo was done at the studio Bobby and his brother Larry owned in San Carlos. I still have the recordings, including one Tex Ritter song called ‘I Can’t Get My Foot Off the Rail.’” … Continue reading »


Suzanne Pittson plays Berkeley, and it’s a family affair

Jeff, Suzanne and Evan Pittson bring their Pittson Family Band to the California Jazz Conservatory on Saturday
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Suzanne Pittson made her mark as a jazz vocalist with a series of daring albums exploring compositions by Oliver Nelson, John Coltrane, and Freddie Hubbard. Collaborating with her husband, the resourceful pianist/keyboardist Jeff Pittson, she delivered dexterously scatted lines with her sleek soprano, or sang original lyrics crafted around the contours of surging post-bop themes.

About a year ago, their son Evan Pittson, who was finishing a degree in visual art at City College of New York, asked about sitting in on a gig the couple had coming up in New York City. He had played viola since grade school but the request “came from out of nowhere,” Suzanne says. “I had been thinking to myself I want to go in a different musical direction. We brought him up to play and the audience was mesmerized. I guess this is our new direction.”

Joined by El Cerrito bassist Dan Feiszli and New York-based drummer Dave Meade, the recently formed Pittson Family Band makes its Bay Area debut 8 p.m. Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory. The concert is part of a rare California tour for the Bay Area natives, who moved east in 2005 when Suzanne landed an assistant professorship at City College of New York, where she’s the director of the jazz vocal program and chair of the music program. … Continue reading »