Berkeley sings, Jazzschool is hub that makes it happen

Saturday marks the Northern California debut of singer/songwriter and guitarist Becca Stevens

The word is out on the musicians’ grapevine. When it comes to vocals, the Jazzschool has become an invaluable forum for transmitting the tradition and presenting many of the most creative singers on the scene.

This weekend’s programming makes the case, with two rising stars from New York City offering concerts and workshops. Sachal Vasandani, a Chicago native who has quickly established himself as one of the most confident young male singers finding inspiration in jazz, performs Friday night and presents a vocal skills master class on Saturday afternoon.

With three releases on Mack Avenue since 2007, Vasandani has displayed a sharp ear for interesting material, a warm, deep-grained tone, and supple, relaxed phrasing at even the briskest tempos. He’s joined Friday by prodigious saxophonist Dayna Stephens, a Berkeley High grad who’s become a major force in New York City despite dealing with a life threatening medical condition.

Saturday marks the Northern California debut of singer/songwriter and guitarist Becca Stevens playing her own material (followed by a master class Sunday afternoon). She’s probably best known in the Bay Area as a member of pianist Menlo Park-raised pianist Taylor Eigsti’s band, though she’s also performed in San Francisco with Bjorkestra, the New York big band devoted to the music of Icelandic pop enchantress Björk.


Stevens first got involved with the Jazzschool last summer when she gave a well-attended workshop. In the area for a stint on faculty at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, she came away from Berkeley ready to spread the word about the Jazzschool’s vocal program.

“I was really blown away with the spectrum of people who came in to take the class,” she says. “I had people who weren’t musicians at all, but still participated in the exercises that we did, which was really cool. I had people who were musicians, a Broadway singer, and on the other side of the room, someone strictly R&B. By the end of the class I had them all singing parts of my songs. I remember thinking that three hours seemed daunting. I had this really elaborate lesson plan written out, and it just flew by. I could have easily filled nine hours.”

In her mid-20s, Stevens is a new-school jazz singer who draws deeply from folk and indie rock. That said, her jazz colleagues haven’t paused in embracing her. Peers like Kate McGarry and Kurt Elling have hailed her as one of the most original young vocalists on the scene, while heavyweight players like pianist Brad Mehldau, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and SFJAZZ Collective drummer Eric Harland have recruited her for projects and recordings. Whatever context she’s working in, Stevens makes a vivid and enduring first impression.

Goose bump reaction

“The first time I saw Becca perform I was completely in awe of her voice and intensity, the level of emotion and intellect,” says vocalist Gretchen Parlato, who collaborates with Stevens in Tillery, a three-woman vocal project with Rebecca Martin. “She’s a ridiculous singer and songwriter, and whether it’s in a rehearsal or performance I have jaw-dropping, goose bump reaction every time I hear her.”

The 2011 release of her second album “Weightless” (Sunnyside) has provided a similarly revelatory calling card for Stevens. While there’s an unmistakable Bjorkian current running through some of her serpentine melodic lines, she claims folk, alt-pop, postbop and European classical music as a birthright.

Raised in Winston-Salem, she grew up in a family suffused with music, and started performing with the family band, the Tune Mammals, at the age of two. Led by her father, William Stevens, a composer specializing in sacred choral music, the Tune Mammals performed his playfully folky original songs for children. Her mother, Carolyn Dorff, is an operatically trained singer who has worked extensively in musical theater. At 10, Stevens starred with her in a yearlong Broadway touring production of “The Secret Garden.”

“Music and art is something that’s very natural for me,” Stevens says. “My father would write with us in the room. I must have been five or six and I remember him writing the song I was going to sing solo on the second record, ‘Too Cute to Spank,’ the title track.”

She studied classical guitar at North Carolina School of the Arts during the day, while singing standards at clubs around the region at night until she matriculated to the New School. Where singing jazz provided an edgy identity for her in high school, “going to jazz school takes all the rebelliousness out of it,” she notes. These days, Stevens is making up her own rules.

Laurie Antonioli, vocalist and director of the Berkeley Jazzschool’s vocal program

For Laurie Antonioli, the veteran vocalist and director of the Jazzschool’s vocal program, that’s what makes Stevens such an important new artist. She’s built the program by drawing on the Bay Area’s deep bench of vocal talent for the faculty, while attracting the most adventurous singers from points east for concerts and workshops. This season’s lineup includes Peter Eldridge on May 13, and a weeklong residency by Theo Bleckmann (Aug. 13-19), a singular stylist who recently released an album interpreting the music of Kate Bush.

The Jazzschool also offers a monthly jam session for vocalists, an effort to cultivate an environment where singers can learn from musicians and each other on the bandstand.

“It’s very much a part of my master plan for the program, to try to create a community of musicians outside of the club,” Antonioli says. “The way I learned was simply by listening and experiencing many people in a live setting. Back in the day when Bobby McFerrin and I lived in Noe Valley, we’d practice scat singing with Jamie Aebersold records. I’m afraid if we don’t try to make this happen in academic environments we might lose that spirit.”

A Bay Area native, Antonioli began writing songs and playing guitar as a teenager in the early 1970s, inspired by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Neil Young. She discovered jazz through her grandmother’s collection of Nellie Luther 78s. Thrilled by the sassy vocals and piano work of the popular 1940s singer, Antonioli started checking out other artists. The search led her to Billie Holiday, who inspired her to start singing standards and improvising.

She delved into the seminal recordings of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Lee Morgan during a brief stint in Portland, studying at Mt. Hood Community College’s pioneering jazz vocal program. Back in the Bay Area, she had a chance to put her rapidly maturing scat chops to work when Mark Murphy began inviting her to sit in at his weekly gig at The Dock, a music spot in Tiburon. Witnessing Nancy King in action provided further education.

Touching people with a lyric

“They made me see that you could behave like an instrument and touch people so deeply with a lyric,” Antonioli says. “I didn’t sing with Nancy at the time, but Mark was very loose and generous on the bandstand, and when he found out I was a singer he invited me up.”

Antonioli recorded her debut album for Catero Records, 1985’s “Soul Eyes,” a ravishing duo session with piano great George Cables (the title track features Mal Waldron’s lyric for his oft-played standard, which he gave Antonioli after hearing her sing in Munich). Throughout the decade, she was one of the region’s most visible singers, booked at leading venues and festivals with her own band, performing regularly with Bobby McFerrin and sitting in with luminaries like Tete Montoliu, Jon Hendricks and Cedar Walton at Keystone Korner. She forged particularly close ties with tenor sax titan Joe Henderson, a creative relationship that lasted some two decades until his death in 2001.

“I’m so grateful I got in at the tail end of that scene with all those fantastic cats,” Antonioli says. “That’s where I learned. Teaching as much as I do, I’m always trying to make sense of things I learned through osmosis, figuring out ways to pass on that information to students.”

Things slowed down considerably for Antonioli in the 1990s and she didn’t release her second album until 2004’s “Foreign Affair,” a bracing blend of post-bop jazz and Balkan music created with players from Serbia, Albania, Germany and the US. Then Antonioli’s work as an educator kept her off the US scene for a significant part of the past decade.

At the recommendation of her old mentor Mark Murphy, KUG University in Graz, Austria hired her as a professor for the vocal jazz department in 2002. In the summer of 2006, Jazzschool founder Susan Muscarella coaxed her back to the Bay Area. Under Antonioli’s leadership the jazz vocal program has attracted a glittering array of guest artists to conduct workshops, including Janis Siegel, Judy Niemack, Roseanna Vitro, and Gretchen Parlato.

“Booking the Jazzschool vocal program has been a natural extension of the relationships I already have in the jazz community,” she says. “Mark Murphy, Sheila Jordon, Bobby McFerrin and Theo Bleckmann are personal friends and have been very generous with their time at the school.  Also, to be perfectly honest, Facebook has been an amazing tool for reaching out to artists that I don’t know personally.  The word is out, and now people contact me, which is fantastic.”

For information about the concerts, visit the Jazzschool.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

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