Author Archives: Andrew Gilbert

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 »

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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 »

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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 »

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Noah Garabedian, Democratoz are Berkeley bound

The four amigos known as Silver City Bound play Freight & Salvage on Sunday. Noah Garabedian, Sam Reider, Will Clark and Justin Poindexter. Photo by Toby Silverman.
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Noah Garabedian had no way of knowing it at the time, but his degree in ethnomusicology turned out to be ideal training for his gig in the jazz-steeped Americana band Silver City Bound.

The Berkeley-raised bassist was establishing himself as a top-shelf New York freelancer about four years ago when he got a call from a Bay Area acquaintance, San Francisco-reared pianist/accordionist Sam Reider. Reider and his musical partner, guitarist Justin Poindexter, were expanding their combo Tres Amigos, which had honed a singular sound drawing on bluegrass and western swing, Gulf Coast grooves and jazz. Now known as Silver City Bound (“We got tired of people thinking it’s a Mexican music band,” Reider says), the quartet makes its Berkeley debut at 7 p.m. Sunday at Freight & Salvage (they also perform Saturday at the Stanford Jazz Festival with special guest Ben Flocks on tenor saxophone).

In many ways the band started to fully realize its potential in 2013, when the U.S. State Department selected the Amigos as cultural ambassadors, which led to a six-week tour of China, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. Interacting with local musicians as much as possible, the band found its wide open aesthetic made it possible to trade tunes and jam with wildly divergent artists. In Cambodia, they connected “with a classical Khmer group, these great musicians with a tradition that uses some improvisation,” says Garabedian, 31. “It was mostly strings and flutes and zithers and some percussion and vocals. Each song painted a cinematic soundscape of a bizarre western movie. We’d play a slow blues, and out of nowhere these zithers and flutes would pop up. … Continue reading »

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Gillian Margot brings Black Beauty to Berkeley (and Geoffrey Keezer)

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The musical partnership of vocalist Gillian Margot and pianist Geoffrey Keezer is still in its infancy, but the two extraordinary musicians have already forged a creatively charged connection. The San Diego-based duo make their Bay Area debut 8 p.m. Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory, though Keezer has performed dozens of times in the East Bay, from his teenage stint in the hard bop cauldron of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers to his well-documented three-year run with legendary bassist Ray Brown (Margot and Keezer also give a CJC workshop Saturday afternoon “The Art of Accompanying a Vocalist”).

One of the most celebrated pianists of his generation, the 45-year-old Keezer even lived in San Leandro briefly about a dozen years ago, in the midst of a Grammy Award-winning stint with bass maestro Christian McBride’s electro-acoustic band. These days he spends much of his time writing music for various projects and commissions, and can be found on stage working as an accompanist for masterly jazz vocalists like Dianne Reeves, Denise Donatelli, and Oakland’s Kenny Washington (who joins Keezer’s trio as a special guest Sunday afternoon at Jazz at Filoli).

“One thing musicians like to do is keep working,” he says. “As a pianist, I like working with vocalists, and singers value what I bring to the table. I’m not much of a singer myself, but I like writing songs, and with my own trio gigs I’ll invite Gillian or Kenny to come up.” … Continue reading »

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Kalil Wilson and Love in Berkeley; other recommended gigs

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Walking down Shattuck a few weeks ago during the Bay Area Book Festival I came across a young man on the corner singing “A Foggy Day” ably accompanied by a keyboardist. Possessing a lithe and soulful sound, he swung effortlessly while imbuing Ira Gershwin’s epiphanic lyric with a true sense of surprise. I wasn’t the only pedestrian halted by his fine-grained tenor and graceful presence, and, despite running late for a coffee date, I lingered to hear three more tunes. This was my introduction to Kalil Wilson, a tremendously gifted vocalist who performs Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory with his band, Love.

I’d been seeing his name around for a while, but hadn’t made it to one of his gigs yet, so catching him unexpectedly on the street, with no preconceptions or forewarning, was particularly pleasurable. Note to self: it’s good to get out of the house. … Continue reading »

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DIY in Berkeley, with pianist Caili O’Doherty Trio and The Miscreants

Caili O'Doherty's trio performs Friday at Jupiter and Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory
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New York City pianist Caili O’Doherty has found cool blue waters in the Bay Area, while Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg has plunged into the roiling New York rapids. What these two very different musicians share is a commitment to making their own gigs happen.

At 24, O’Doherty is already a familiar face in the Bay Area. Following the release of Padme, her heralded 2015 debut album, she performed widely around the region last year, making a powerful impression with her lyrically charged original compositions. She returns this week with a lustrous body of new music for her New York City trio featuring drummer Cory Cox and Israeli-born bassist Tamir Shmerling.

“I always like the idea of creating your own opportunities,” says O’Doherty, who plays Jupiter on Friday, Webster Haven Presents house concert in Berkeley on Saturday, (email jsteere@igc.org or call 510-849-1969), and a Sunday afternoon California Jazz Conservatory concert with special guest Steven Lugerner on alto saxophone and bass clarinet (she also gives a workshop Sunday at the CJC 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. on “Using Language as a tool for Improvising”).   … Continue reading »

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The first family of Cajun music at Freight, Ashkenaz

The Savoy Family Cajun Band performs tonight at Freight & Salvage and Friday at Ashkenaz
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Ann and Marc Savoy have been performing in Berkeley for some four decades, since the dawn of the Cajun music renaissance they helped to spark in the mid-1970s. Whether touring with the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band (their long-running collaboration with BeauSoleil fiddler Michael Doucet), or the Savoy Family Cajun Band with their sons Joel and Wilson, the couple embodies the joyous and earthy pleasures of Cajun culture.

Despite their deep ties to the Bay Area, Thursday’s concert at Freight & Salvage and Friday’s dance party at Ashkenaz offer an unprecedented view into this restlessly creative clan. While they’ve toured with their sons Joel and Wilson for years in the Family Band, the Berkeley concerts mark the first time ever they’ll be joined on stage by their daughters Sarah and Gabrielle.

Sarah, the eldest, is an executive chef in Paris who also leads the Cajun band Sarah Savoy’s  Hell-Raising Hayride. She performed on 2003’s Savoy Family Album (Arhoolie), shortly before moving abroad. Gabrielle, a guitarist, photographer, and painter who has created a colorful trading-card style series celebrating Cajun heroes, has never performed with the family. Wilson is the only sibling who won’t be performing in Berkeley. … Continue reading »

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She’s the boss: Ojai at Berkeley celebrates amazing women

Tyshawn Sorey's "Josephine Baker: A Portrait" closes Ojai at Berkeley Saturday at Zellerbach Playhouse
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Tyshawn Sorey grew up hearing about Josephine Baker as a matriarch of the civil-rights movement who knocked down racial barriers around the world. It wasn’t until recently, however, when the drummer, pianist and composer started to collaborate with poet Claudia Rankine and soprano Julia Bullock, that he came to appreciate her vocal prowess. Cal Performances presents his new work Josephine Baker: A Portrait 8 p.m. Saturday at Zellerbach Playhouse as the closing event of Ojai at Berkeley.

Programmed by artistic director Peter Sellars to celebrate an array of heroines, the festival opens tonight at Zellerbach Playhouse with Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s oratorio “La Passion de Simone” inspired by radical 20th-century French philosopher Simone Weil. The new restaging by Sellars features International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), the vocal group Roomful of Teeth, and Julia Bullock singing the part of Weill, a role originally created for her former teacher, the transcendent Dawn Upshaw. … Continue reading »

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English majors unite! The Bricoleurs take Jupiter

The Bricoleurs under the Jupiter redwood, with guitarist René Planchon, Justin Baird, and organist Brian Ho.
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What’s in a name? For Berkeley drummer/composer Jared Baird, finding the perfect moniker for his Hammond B-3 powered trio marked a major step in uniting two distinct facets of his life. An English teacher at Marin Academy by day (he also spent six years on faculty at Berkeley High), Baird holds down Jupiter’s Tuesday Jazzidency series through the end of June with The Bricoleurs.

He lifted the band’s name from Michael Chabon’s book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, in a moment of inspiration when “one of the characters discovers this artistic approach to making comic books borrowing from the French avant garde,” Baird says. “The thought hit me that it’s a great visual metaphor for what I want to do, evoking this idea of bricolage, pulling from all these different elements. Later I came to learn that in common French a bricoleur is a handyman, a tinkerer, or an amateur, and l liked the spirit of that. I approach my music like a professional, but I don’t really play music for a living.” … Continue reading »

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From Cuba with love: Berkeley High Jazz at the UC Theatre

Berkeley High Jazz in Cuba. Photo by Bill Kinder.
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In jazz, timing is critical, and the Berkeley High jazz program has long demonstrated a gift for landing on just the right beat. When Fourth Street merchants decided to end its annual Jazz on Fourth event, a cornerstone of the jazz program’s annual fundraising efforts, the Berkeley Music Group’s newly opened The UC Theatre stepped into the breach. On Friday, the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble plays an opening set at the UC Theatre for the Pacific Mambo Orchestra, which shocked the Latin music scene in 2014 by winning the Grammy Award for Best Latin Tropical Album.

“The Fourth Street merchants felt like shutting down the street was too disruptive,” said trombonist Sarah Cline, who’s finishing her fifth year as director of Berkeley High’s jazz program. “We so grateful for their support. They did Jazz on Fourth for 20 years, raised more than $200,000 over that time, and they’re still supporting us. Abrams/Millikan is one of the corporate sponsors of the UC Theatre concert, and we’re looking for more.” … Continue reading »

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Raising voices for 50 years with the Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra

Berkeley Community Chorus in rehearsal. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
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The competition for Berkeley’s most Berkeley organization is stiff, but you’ll be hard pressed to find an institution that embodies the city’s best impulses more fully than the Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra. Radically egalitarian, creatively ambitious, and committed to offering free performances, the BCCO brings together some 220 singers, many of whom have little or no musical training.

The choir concludes its milestone 50th season next weekend with performances of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” at Hertz Hall at 8 p.m. on June 3, and 4 p.m. on June 4. A massive undertaking that involves a chamber orchestra and a full orchestra, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, an organ, three conductors, and three vocal soloists (baritone Efrain Solis, tenor Brian Thorsett, and soprano Carrie Hennessey), this production of staging the canonical work is the culmination of more than two years of planning. … Continue reading »

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Getting busy with pianist/composer Satoko Fujii

Pianist/composer Satoko Fujii performs at the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space Friday on a double bill with Larry Ochs, and plays a solo recital Saturday at Maybeck Studio in honor of Paul Bley
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When Satoko Fujii describes herself as lazy, take it with a grain of salt. Better yet, make it a shaker-full. Since recording her first CD in 1996, the Japanese pianist/composer has left even her most prolific peers in the dust, releasing a veritable torrent of albums documenting a dizzying array of ensembles around the world. And it’s not like she’s sacrificing quality for quantity, as Fujii is widely considered one of the most consistently vivid writers in jazz.

She returns to Berkeley this weekend for two very different concerts that are part of her year-long celebration marking the 20th anniversary of Libra, the label she runs with her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura (aka Kappa Maki). On Friday, Fujii plays the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space in a double bill co-sponsored by the Center for New Music San Francisco. She opens with Maki and special guest drummer Gino Robair, followed by Berkeley saxophonist Larry Ochs, bassist Jason Hoopes and drummer Jordan Glenn (with all the musicians coming together for a brief third set). And on Saturday she plays a free improv solo piano recital at Maybeck Studio, offering a tribute to the late pianist/composer Paul Bley, a mentor who joined her on the first Libra album in 1996, Something About Water. … Continue reading »

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