Author Archives: Andrew Gilbert

A jazz convergence with Hafez Modirzadeh

Hafez Modirzadeh by Walter Wagner
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Conversations with Hafez Modirzadeh often swerve in unexpected directions. The Iranian-American saxophonist/composer is a confidant of jazz legends like Ornette Coleman and a mentor to cutting edge stars like Vijay Iyer. Always looking to expand his conceptual framework, he’s created an enthralling body of music that encompasses classical modes from Persian, Arabic and Turkish music and beyond. A longtime professor of music at San Francisco State where he’s the co-director of Jazz and World Music Studies, Modirzadeh plays an extremely rare East Bay concert 8 p.m. Friday at the California Jazz Conservatory with pianist Mark Levine, bassist John Wiitala and drummer Akira Tana.

Catching up with Modirzadeh recently by phone from his home in San Jose he was eager to discuss his recent Fulbright-funded sojourn to Turkey, but first he wanted to talk about last week’s front page New York Times story about an 11-year-old piano prodigy from Jakarta.

Reading the profile and watching the video, Modirzadeh recalled a premonition about “varieties of intonation eventually coming from our youth to advance consciousness through sound. There’s something about where he’s from, a clear inspiration from gamelan, the shimmer in the beat between the instruments. That’s a key element in a lot of the music I’ve been trying to develop, and I believe that shimmering resonance is at hand, and with it comes our humanity’s resolution!” … Continue reading »

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Jazz blooms in Berkeley with a rich choice of performers

Marcus Shelby
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On any given night one can find a handful of jazz gigs in Berkeley interesting enough to coax even a casual fan out of the house. But this Sunday offers something altogether rare with a convergence of two events that auger well for the future of the scene.

From noon to 5 p.m., the Berkeley High jazz program’s 20th annual Jazz on Fourth Street fundraiser turns the shopping district into a music-filled street party. And at the David Brower Center from 2-5 p.m., Jazz in the Neighborhood celebrates its second anniversary with a fundraiser and concert featuring the lustrous vocalist Clairdee, pianist Ken French, bassist Marcus Shelby, trumpeter (and Berkeley High alum) Erik Jekabson, pianist Glen Pearson, saxophonist/flutist Mary Fettig, trombonist Wayne Wallace, and drummer Hamir Atwal. … Continue reading »

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In Berkeley: The First Annual Rafael Manriquez Festival

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Rafael Manriquez is no longer here to sing his own songs, but the Chilean-born troubadour’s friends, family and colleagues are making sure that his poetic calls for justice continue to reverberate.

Born in Chile and based in the Berkeley area from 1977 until his death in June 2013, the composer, vocalist and master of various string instruments wrote songs that have been performed and recorded across the Americas. On Saturday La Peña presents the First Annual Rafael Manriquez Festival, an event featuring a talent-laden cast including Jackeline Rago, Avotcja, Fernando Torres, Ricardo Valdivieso, Esteban Bello, Axel Herrera, Hugo Wainzinger, and Lichi Fuentes (Manriquez’s former musical partner in the beloved and widely traveled Grupo Raíz).

The ambitious undertaking marks the release of a lost Manriquez album from the 1980s, El Pajaro Vuela (The Bird Flies), featuring Bay Area Latin jazz stars John Santos and Rebeca Mauleón. Some of the funds raised during the concert will go towards the production of a new Rafael Manriquez CD with 14 unpublished songs discovered as unfinished recordings in his archives. While many of Saturday’s performers have several of his songs in their repertoire, the festival is designed to introduce less familiar or unheard Manriquez tunes.

“All of these musicians have made a tremendous effort to incorporate a song of Rafa’s that they didn’t know,” said Marci Manriquez, who along with her brother Manuel Manriquez will also perform a song of her father’s on Saturday. … Continue reading »

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Rent Romus, and past and future Finns of West Berkeley

Rent Romus
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The determination to explore his Finnish ancestry didn’t come to Rent Romus in a sudden epiphany or a burst of inspiration. Rather, the Richmond saxophonist and composer spent years painstakingly parsing The Kalevala, a compendium of epic poetry, folklore and mythology that played an essential role in sparking Finnish national identity in the mid-19th century.

Eventually, he created a singular synthesis of postmodern jazz and traditional Finnish music in The Otherworld Cycle, an expansive suite he presents 4 p.m. Saturday as part of the Annual Vappu Spring Festival at Berkeley’s Finnish Kaleva Hall. The event, which also includes a buffet supper, a silent auction and a performance by Heikki Koskinen’s Kaleva All Stars, harkens back to a time when West Berkeley was commonly known as Finntown (more on that later). … Continue reading »

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Poetry and jazz: Surging together in Berkeley

Raymond Nat Turner
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The unassuming apartment complex at Seventh and Allston doesn’t look much like the cradle of a creative movement, but for spoken-word artist Raymond Nat Turner the West Berkeley locale provided everything he needed to launch UpSurge!

Working as roadie, manager and all-round assistant for Donald “Duck” Bailey in the 1980s, Turner started frequenting a weekly jam session hosted by the jazz drum legend at the Wellington Hotel at Seventh and University (where La Quinta stands today). With a steady flow of young musical talent from Berkeley High attending the sessions, Turner found the personnel he needed to launch the politically charged jazz/poetry ensemble that celebrates its 25th anniversary 8 p.m. Friday at the Berkeley Art Festival performance space on University Avenue, just a mile east of where the project first came together in the fall of 1990. … Continue reading »

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Five Play quintet gives Tony Corman a replay

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For Tony Corman, Five Play is all about second chances. The guitarist and composer co-leads the quintet with his wife, pianist/composer Laura Klein, and the band’s impressive track record speaks to his cussed refusal to let his body betray his passion for music. Featuring reed expert Dave Tidball on saxophones and clarinet, veteran bassist Paul Smith, and drum maestro Alan Hall, Five Play performs 8 p.m. Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory with special guest Ron Horton, a brilliant New York trumpeter who rarely gets to the Bay Area.

When I first met Corman at the North Berkeley house where he and Klein have lived since the mid-1980s he was a formidable tenor saxophonist and I was writing the liner notes to an artfully entertaining album Deconstruction Ahead (SeaBreeze Records) by the horn-laden band Three Tenors No Opera featuring Corman and fellow saxophonists Tidball and Jim Norton. The album received glowing reviews and the band played several high profile gigs, but then Corman seemed to drop out of view, and it was several years before I ran into him and discovered that he had been forced to reinvent himself. … Continue reading »

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David Bowie to Broadway: Dan Wilensky back in Berkeley

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Fresh out of Berkeley High in the summer of 1979, Dan Wilensky had to make a fateful decision. The prestigious Eastman School of Music was offering a full scholarship at the same time that the Ray Charles Orchestra came calling for the young saxophonist. Wilensky chose Charles, and the gig turned into a six-month bandstand education that launched a gloriously diverse and insistently creative career. He returns to town next week for a series of gigs, making his first Berkeley appearances as a leader since heading to New York in 1980. Appropriately, he kicks off the run at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Freight & Salvage, performing as a special guest with the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble and Berkeley High Combo A (which just earned top honors at the Monterey Jazz Festival’s 2015 Next Generation Jazz Festival).

“I’ve played in the East Bay as sideman over the years with artists like Stevie Winwood and Joan Baez, but this is the first time I’m coming back under my own name,” says Wilensky, who relocated to Portland, Oregon in 2012 after three breathless decades on the New York scene. “I’m really excited to go back to Berkeley High to play and work with the students and tell them some stories about the life of a working musician.” … Continue reading »

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Dona Francisca’s Brazilian dance party

Dona Francisca band
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No one knows exactly how the northeastern Brazilian musical style known as forró got its name, but the rootsy accordion-driven sound, once disdained by Brazil’s sophisticated south as the music of taxi drivers and maids, has earned a global following. In the East Bay the leading purveyor of forro is Dona Francisca, a talent-laden six-piece band that holds down Ashkenaz’s First Saturday Forró Party (9 p.m., April 4). The band returns to Ashkenaz on May 2 and also performs at SFJAZZ’s Joe Henderson Lab on Aug. 16, the first time the room will feature an open dance floor.

Launched about a year ago, Dona Francisca was born out of the embers of two excellent ensembles, Forró Brazuca and Kata-Vento, which both fell apart when the Brazilian musicians at the center of the projects decided to move back home. “There were two broken Brazilian bands in the Bay area and eventually we decided to put the pieces together,” says Dona Francisca flutist/vocalist Rebecca Kleinmann, who had played in Kato-Vento, a band dedicated to the original music of guitarist Carlos Oliveira, who returned to Recife a few years ago. … Continue reading »

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Getting Frisky with Macy Blackman & The Mighty Fines

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Maybe a Manhattan methadone clinic wasn’t an auspicious setting for encountering a musical hero, but Macy Blackman wasn’t going let an opportunity to hang out with New Orleans drummer Charles “Hungry” Williams go to waste. Looking to get clean in the bitter winter of 1978, Blackman was sitting on a couch in the lounge of the Bernstein Institute strumming a guitar when someone informed him that Fats Domino’s drummer was in the next room.

“After a while he came in and started singing Chuck Willis’ ‘You’re Still My Baby’ with me,” says Blackman, a Kensington resident for the past 13 years. He celebrates the release of his new album Friskin’ the Whiskers with his band The Mighty Fines at Ashkenaz 9 p.m. Thursday, April 2.

A pianist, cornetist, and vocalist with a gruff, rhythmically assured delivery, Blackman is one of Northern California’s leading exponents of classic New Orleans R&B, and he absorbed a good deal of the music directly from the source. He and Williams struck up a fast friendship after that first encounter, and ended up playing music together up until the drummer’s death in 1986. Blackman, who still supplements his income as a piano technician, even taught Williams his trade. … Continue reading »

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David Wessel: Musical scientist/scientific musician

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In a town known for spawning visionary organizations that insistently hew to a singular path, the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies may be the most Berkeley institution of them all. And that’s because it reflects the polymathic curiosity and probing intelligence of the late founder and director David Wessel, who died suddenly last October at the age of 72. Known by its initialism CNMAT (pronounced senn-mat), it’s a multi-disciplinary research center tucked within Cal’s Department of Music where musicians, composers and leading researchers in physics, mathematics, electrical engineering, psychology, computer science, cognitive science explore the creative interaction between music and technology.

On 4-7 p.m. Sunday, several hundred of Wessel’s friends, family and colleagues from around the world will gather at the Berkeley City Club for a series of improvisation-driven performances, a fitting celebration of his legacy. Among the artists involved are violist Nils Bultmann, Berkeley guitarist John Schott and Matthew Wright on electronics, and vocalist Thomas Buckner, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, Earl Howard on synthesizer, and percussionists George Marsh and Jennifer Wilsey.

“We’ll have several of his closest collaborators on stage performing,” said composer and CNMAT Director Edmund Campion, who Wessel brought to CNMAT in 1996 (he became co-director in 2008). “It could go on for days with all the musicians who will be there, so we had to put some limits on it.”

While the celebration is far more geared toward musical tributes than spoken reminiscing, Campion says that there will be no shortage of text, including abstracts from the hundreds of research projects to which Wessel contributed, “an incredible legacy of published papers, at a rate and amount that’s pretty mind boggling.” … Continue reading »

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Stephanie Crawford: Making herself a masterpiece

Stephanie Crawford will perform Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley
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Stephanie Crawford has performed at top jazz clubs in New York City and Paris, but since settling in the East Bay about 15 years ago she’s been one of the region’s best kept jazz secrets. In recent months lucky Cheese Board patrons have been privy to her vocal artistry (she’s there Thursday afternoon with pianist Joe Warner), but Crawford’s mainstay is the California Jazz Conservatory, where she returns 4:30 pm Sunday for a performance with Warner, ace bassist Ron Belcher, and versatile drummer Greg German.

It’s telling that the North Oakland resident has found a welcome embrace in venues run by vocalists. She was a regular at Anna de Leon’s lamented downtown spot Anna’s Jazz Island. And Laurie Antonioli, the supremely creative singer who runs the CJC’s jazz vocal program, has long championed Crawford, hiring her for gigs as a performer and teacher, where she contributes significant depth to the program. … Continue reading »

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In Berkeley: It’s a woman’s woman’s woman’s world

Kitka. Photo: Thomas Pacha
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Sisterhood isn’t just powerful it sounds hella good. Venues around Berkeley hardly need International Women’s Day (March 8) for inspiration to feature great female musicians, but from Freight & Salvage to R. Kassman Fine Pianos and Berkeley High there are numerous women-centric concerts and events taking place in the coming days.

On 8 p.m. Sunday, the 30th Jewish Music Festival presents the great Bay Area choir Kitka at the Freight, an event that also includes the JMF’s Shofar Award ceremony honoring folk music legend Ronnie Gilbert.

The eight-women Oakland ensemble has developed a vast, breathtaking repertoire of traditional songs from the Balkans, Caucasus, and Slavic lands and new material composed for the group drawing on those Eastern European vocal traditions. For the JMF, Kitka is presenting an array of material, including pieces from last year’s album I Will Remember Everything. The album features composer Eric Banks’ settings of the long censored verse of Sophia Parnok (1885-1933), known as “Russia’s Sappho” for her emotionally charged poems to her lover, the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. … Continue reading »

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Pounding sweet sounds with The Lemonhammer

The Lemonhammer
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As a singer/songwriter with a folky bent, Alexis Harte spent about a decade leading his own bands and taking care of all the details that entails. These days, the Berkeley-reared guitarist and vocalist has found an ideal partner in Oakland’s Damond Moodie, a soul-steeped singer/songwriter who’s also co-director of Pumpkin Seed Childcare.

They’ve effectively combined their complimentary sonic sensibilities in The Lemonhammer. The quartet celebrates the release of a new EP Made In A House 1 p.m. Sunday at Freight & Salvage on a double bill with Judea Eden Band as the opening act. The ticket price includes a copy of the EP. … Continue reading »

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