Whether she’s caressing an American Songbook standard, reinterpreting a contemporary pop tune, introducing a poetic original, or launching into a high-wire free improvisation, Andrea Wolper is a musical explorer who unfailingly seeks the same destination.
“What it always comes down to for me is communication,” says the adventurous jazz vocalist. “I want to communicate feelings with everyone in the room. The audience is a huge part of the equation, and I want everyone to have fun.”
Long based in New York City, the Bay Area native plays her first run of hometown shows in five years, performing tonight at the Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco and Saturday at the Jazzschool with guitarist Dave MacNab, drummer Vijay Anderson, and New York bassist Ken Filiano. She also offers a Jazzschool workshop on Sunday afternoon “The Jazz Singer in You!” geared to singers of various levels.
Wolper’s wild side will be on display on the upcoming album “In Concert” (New Artists) featuring the free improv trio TranceFormation with Filiano and pianist Connie Crothers. But for her Bay Area dates, she’s focusing on material from her acclaimed 2005 debut “The Small Hours” and 2011’s “Parallel Lives” (Jazzed Media), a captivating album that encompasses Joni Mitchell (“Song To A Seagull” and “Be Cool”), Buffy St. Marie (“Maple Sugar Boy”), Richard Rodgers (“Something Good”) and Lionel Bart (“Who Will Buy?”).
With her warmly inviting contralto, Wolper has developed a subtle approach in which she pays close attention to the lyric, improvising around the edges of a melody. She also has a knack for searching out beautiful songs rarely covered by jazz artists. Her own pieces tend toward the poetic, with concrete imagery anchoring her sensuous melodic lines.
“I love singing standards, but it’s not all that I want to do,” Wolper says. “I tend to look for music from other sources as well. I love finding a wonderful pop song and reharmonizing it, or setting a poem to music. All different kinds of things have gone into the pot. I allow it all to feed me.”
Wolper grew up on the Peninsula and spent several years at UC Berkeley in the late 1970s, but she was far more interested in theater at the time. When she moved to New York City her ambition focused on the stage. That’s not to say that she ignored jazz. During her college years she wore out the grooves on two albums she purloined from her parents’ collection, “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook” and “Ella in Berlin,” and later fell under the spell of Anita O’Day. The possibility of pursuing jazz singing herself, however, seemed more than remote. “At the time it wasn’t even a fantasy,” she says. “I might as well have said I’ll be the king of England.”
After several years of supporting herself by waiting tables and freelance writing (she co-edited the 1994 book “Women’s Rights, Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives”), she decided to give up the acting dream. Meanwhile, while indulging her love of singing with private lessons for her own enjoyment, she found her way to a local jam session, she experienced a jazz epiphany. “It felt like, where had you been all my life?!” she recalls. “I just never thought it was something I could do.”
Over the years she’s made some important allies, such as Todd Barkan, the founder of San Francisco’s 1970s jazz Mecca, Keystone Korner, and a prolific producer who now serves as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola. He produced her first album, “The Small Hours,” and co-produced “Parallel Lives.” Among her peers, she’s recorded with Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London and veteran drummer Victor Lewis.
Most importantly, she often works with Filiano, a powerhouse bassist sought after by masters such as Roswell Rudd, James Newton, Milcho Leviev, Bobby Bradford, Warne Marsh, and Kenny Barron. They first met on the bandstand in 1998 and played together frequently before getting married in 2003, a connection that largely settled the always vexing issue how to keep a quality bass player on hand.
“When you find a good bass player,” she says with a chuckle, “you’ve got to what you’ve got to do.”
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.