Author Archives: Andrew Gilbert

Getting actualized with John Schott

Actual Trio 1
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Berkeley drummer John Hanes paid his blues dues at Larry Blake’s in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, a rigorous bandstand education in the fundamentals of laying down a sly Jimmy Reed shuffle and a searing John Lee Hooker boogie. His schooling in the crucible of Larry Blake’s “Rat Band” led to widespread work on the East Bay blues scene, and he attained the kind of authority that let him emerge at the end of a gig backing R&B legend Etta James without the salty tongue lashing she liberally bestowed on drummer’s faking the funk.

When he played with Berkeley jazz guitarist John Schott for the first time about a decade later Hanes immediately recognized a kindred rhythmic spirit. “It was a trio and Myles Boisen was playing a blues shuffle and John was playing rhythm guitar,” Hanes recalls.  “I had experience playing with black blues players in Oakland, and when John started playing this blues he sounded correct. I thought oh my God, he really knows what he’s doing.”

They’ve been collaborating ever since, and kick off a West Coast tour celebrating the release of Schott’s new album Actual Trio (Tzadik) with Berkeley bassist Dan Seamans Friday at the Berkeley Arts Festival gallery and Sunday at San Francisco’s Red Poppy Art House. Schott created the group about four years ago when he acquired the musicians’ holy grail of a regular gig. The group still plays the first Sunday of every month at North Oakland’s Actual Café, and they’ve used the long-running residency to hone a loose-limbed approach drawing on postbop harmonies, graceful song forms, and quicksilver rhythmic shifts. It’s a stylistically encompassing sound that never sheds a blues sensibility. … Continue reading »

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The utopian vision of the Ben Goldberg School

Ben Goldberg - photo by Adam Goldberg
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Interviewing choreographer Twyla Tharp for an upcoming story about her 50th anniversary tour I was struck by her description of her new dance “Preludes and Fugues” set to J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier as belonging to a utopian streak long at the center of her work. “You take a huge responsibility in imagining the world as it should be,” she said.

I haven’t asked him about it directly, but it seems that a similar vision animates Berkeley clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg’s band Ben Goldberg School.

Featuring alto saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, Santana trombonist Jeff Cressman, Berkeley bassist David Ewell, drummer Hamir Atwal, and Rob Reich on accordion, the sextet performs 8 p.m. Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory. Founded about three years ago, the ensemble wasn’t created as a vehicle to transmit information as much as to provide a forum for group revelation. Devoted to Goldberg’s melodically charged, blues-and-roots steeped tunes, School creates a rarified musical space in which some of the Bay Area’s most ardent improvisers can fully express themselves. … Continue reading »

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Change of the century: Musical tribute to Ornette Coleman

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A few nights after Ornette Coleman’s death on June 11 at the age of 85, Berkeley guitarist John Schott put out the word that anyone interested in share music, memories, or thoughts relating to the iconic saxophonist should come by the Berkeley Arts Festival space for an informal gathering.

The event was warm and unscripted with musicians describing life-changing encounters with Coleman and offering impromptu versions of some of his beatific blues. Jazz lovers are almost used to the loss of our foundational artists, as the ranks of players born before World War II continues to dwindle.

But Ornette was far more than a seminal improviser who exponentially expanded the music’s rhythmic and harmonic possibilities. He embodied the playfully heroic duality-erasing ideal at the center of African-American musical innovation. Radical and rootsy, avant garde and populist, philosophical and visceral, genius and trickster, Coleman arrived on the Los Angeles scene in the mid-1950s with an utterly and insistently individual aesthetic and never strayed from his own wending path. … Continue reading »

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Guitarist George Cotsirilos: A nighthawk flies in Berkeley

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Chicago-reared George Cotsirilos arrived in Berkeley in 1969 as an aspiring young guitarist deeply under the sway of the three blues Kings (B.B., Albert, and Freddie). In the midst of his undergrad studies at Cal he took some time off to play with a blues band in Ann Arbor, and when he re-enrolled to continue his sociology studies he came under the sway of legendary East Bay guitar teacher Warren Nunes, who turned his attention to jazz and “opened up other vistas,” Cotsirilos says.

These days the long-time Berkeley resident is one of most tasteful and dependably swinging jazz guitarists on the Bay Area scene, and the leader of a lithe and quietly dramatic trio with bassist Robb Fisher and drummer Ron Marabuto. The group performs at Jupiter on Wednesday night. … Continue reading »

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Exploring the round world with Ramon and Jessica

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To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, song is a song is a song is a song. The Oakland-raised writer’s elliptical verse serves as the source of inspiration for the latest project by Ramon and Jessica, the singer/songwriter duo of Dina Maccabee and Jesse Olsen Bay. They present Roses are Blue, a suite for vocal ensemble inspired by Stein’s 1938 children’s book The World is Round, Friday at Berkeley’s Subterranean Arthouse and Saturday at San Francisco’s Red Poppy Art House.

“We don’t conceive it that way, but a lot of friends say their kids love our music,” says Maccabee, who spent a decade as a creative force on the Bay Area music scene before recently completing a masters program in composition at Wesleyan University. … Continue reading »

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Rupa Marya: A songwriter at the cusp of life and death

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Rupa Marya has long been acutely sensitive to issues of life and death. Though she no longer works on the ICU at UC San Francisco, where she’s a doctor on staff, she has spent a lot of time with families and patients in their final days. On stage, she’s married her passion for progressive activism to a global array of styles as the leader of the Rupa and the April Fishes, a high-energy acoustic band that has earned an international following with a series of multi-lingual albums.

These days however, Rupa’s musical and personal focus has shifted decidedly inward. Since giving birth to her son Bija in September of 2013, she’s recalibrated her sound to harmonize with her changing consciousness, a transformation wrought by bringing a new life into the world and nurturing him. Her remarkable new album Oval , which surrounds her voice with a silken skein of strings, reflects her new state of mind, and she’s celebrating the CD’s release Wednesday at Freight & Salvage. … Continue reading »

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Discovering a Brazilian master: Guinga plays Berkeley

Guinga. Photo: Manfred Pollert
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Nestled in the redwoods of Cazadero, California Brazil Camp brings a remarkable collection of master Brazilian musicians and dancers to Northern California every summer. But even with a faculty featuring some of Brazil’s most esteemed artists, landing Guinga was a major coup.

Widely considered Brazil’s greatest living composer, the guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter performs 8 p.m. Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory. He’s spending his night off between Brazil Camp’s first and second sessions on stage with several fellow faculty members, including guitarist Marcus Tardelli, who Guinga has hailed as a genius akin to “Rubinstein at the piano. There are certain musicians who are beyond mere technical judgment, who have a relationship with the unfathomable.” … Continue reading »

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Just a little Green: Green Huse performs Joni Mitchell

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Berkeley singer/songwriter Green Huse hasn’t performed a full concert under her own name for about a decade. By a strange coincidence, her last evening-length gig was not long before the birth of the first of her two kids. So think of Saturday’s show at the Berkeley Arts Festival space on University Avenue as something of a reintroduction.

Rather than focusing on her original songs, Huse has gathered a group of close musical friends to interpret the music of Joni Mitchell, focusing on material from the classic albums BlueLadies of the CanyonFor the Roses and Court and Spark. She’s never done a concert devoted to another artist’s work before, but the project served her creative needs at a time when she wanted to really challenge herself.  … Continue reading »

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Howard Alden: Seven strings, will travel

Howard Alden - photo by Joseph Boggess
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Howard Alden makes a powerful impression, even when you can’t see him. In Woody Allen’s great 1999 film Sweet and Lowdown the veteran jazz guitarist supplied the beautiful fretwork delivered by Sean Penn’s fictional Emmet Ray, a tormented musician who describes himself as “the second greatest guitarist in the world” (topped only by the very real guitar legend Django Reinhardt). At the time, Alden wasn’t particularly associated with Reinhardt’s Gypsy swing sound, but he’s a highly versatile player who thrives in just about any setting.

In the next two weeks, Alden plays numerous gigs around the region, including a solo recital tonight at Schoenberg Guitars in Tiburon, and Tuesday at St. Albans Episcopal Church in Albany with members of the Berkeley Choro Ensemble and Grupo Falso Baiano (namely flutist Jane Lenoir, clarinetist Harvey Wainapel, guitarist Brian Moran, and percussionist Ami Molinelli Hart). … Continue reading »

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Alive! in Berkeley: All-women jazz combo comes to town

Alive try
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Alive! wasn’t the first top-flight all-women combo in jazz. Going back to at least the 1940s, when the International Sweethearts of Rhythm earned the respect of their male peers and discerning audiences, excellent female musicians have come together to swing and improvise. But the women in Alive!, who mark the 40th anniversary of the band’s founding with a reunion concert Sunday at Freight & Salvage, boldly trod onto new territory when they came together in the mid-1970s.

Featuring vocalist Rhiannon, percussionist Carolyn Brandy, bassist/cellist Susanne DiVincenza, drummer Barbara Borden and the late pianist Janet Small (who passed away in 2010), Alive! captured jazz’s zeitgeist with a repertoire focusing on original compositions. Inspired by Brandy’s rapidly accelerating passion for Afro-Cuban rituals and rhythms, the band incorporated Cuban grooves at a time when more jazz musicians were exploring Caribbean cultural currents. The inimitable Tammy Hall, who can often be found accompanying the region’s best jazz singers, is the band’s new pianist. … Continue reading »

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The singing oncologist: Natalie Marshall in Berkeley

Natalie Marshall, a practicing oncologist,
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Berkeley oncologist Natalie Marshall plunged into jazz vocals to scratch her own creative itch. But as she’s gained confidence, technique and musical knowledge, Marshall has found that singing can also have therapeutic applications.

“Sometimes a patient will say ‘I’m feeling kind of bad today, can you sing me a song?’” says Marshall, who performs 8 p.m. Saturday as part of the California Jazz Conservatory’s Rising Stars Series. “One patient had been really sick and as she was getting better one day she said I need some music therapy. We ended up singing ‘So Far So Good’ in the hospital room together. It’s a healing moment that’s not about giving an injection.”

A longtime jazz fan, she started working with musicians about five years ago while living in Albuquerque. She was on the board of the respected non-profit Outpost Performance Space when her husband, guitarist and playwright David Weisberg, encouraged her to sign up for a 10-week course that essentially brought a group of professional and amateur musicians together for impromptu sessions.

“I had so much fun I got bitten by the bug,” she says. “From that course a few people came together and we spent nine months practicing before our first gig, which was in an Albuquerque bowling alley.” … Continue reading »

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Sparkler, or a Berkeley High reunion at the Freight?

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Did you hear about Monday’s Berkeley High reunion at Freight & Salvage? It’s listed on the club’s calendar as a double bill pairing Peter Apfelbaum’s Sparkler and Natalie Cressman’s band, but the indefatigably creative Apfelbaum has essentially assembled a Yellow Jacket conclave with his new electronica-laced band, which features a multi-generational cast of Berkeley High grads and a couple of ringers from nearby. The group released an EP of shimmering dance music last year, I Colored It In For You (M.O.D. Technologies), which includes a remix by bassist and studio wizard Bill Laswell.

For the Freight show Will Bernard, class of 1977, is out from New York with Apfelbaum to provide relentlessly grooving rhythm guitar. East Bay-based Erika Oba, class of 2004, is filling in for the band’s regular keyboardist, while Brooklyn’s Charlie Ferguson, class of 2006, is covering the drum chair (he brings his stellar Afrobeat band Zongo Junction to The New Parish on Aug. 7 with bassist Noah Garabedian, another Berkeley-to-Brooklyn classmate).

“We have this whole reservoir of musicians,” says Apfelbaum, who belongs to the first generation that came through the groundbreaking jazz-steeped BUSD music education program that Herb Wong introduced in the late 1960s. “And not just in jazz. There are so many different style that these musicians play. Charlie had already studied with Josh Jones for three years while at Berkeley High before he studied with me at the New School. I’ll show him some rhythmic figure and he does his own thing with it. I don’t need explain a lot.” … Continue reading »

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Regina Carter: Fiddling with genius in Berkeley

Regina Carter
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Being dubbed a genius isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Regina Carter, jazz’s most visible and celebrated violinist, found out about the downside of the vaunted designation when the MacArthur Foundation awarded her a coveted “Genius” Fellowship, which led to good natured ribbing from her husband, drummer Alvester Garnett, and the rest of her band.

“Alvester was really excited when I told him I got the grant, then he went online and checked it out and said, ‘You know, they call this thing the ‘genius award’ and you can’t even go around the block without getting lost!’” says Carter, who makes her Freight & Salvage debut 8 p.m. Sunday. “If I do something crazy at home, he’ll say, ‘alright genius.’ I’m always getting razzed by him and the band.”

Not that Carter is complaining. Receiving the $500,000 no-strings grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has allowed her to embark on a series of musical journeys that use her ancestral roots as a point of departure. She spent years exploring music by contemporary African composers, a quest that materialized on her 2010 album Reverse Thread (E1 Entertainment). Fascinated by the fiddle’s seemingly infinite variety of permutations Carter notes that the instrument “has traveled and evolved and been part of many traditions. It seems like every music on the planet has an instrument that reminds me of the violin.” … Continue reading »

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