Kai Eckhardt is recognized internationally as one of jazz’s most prodigious electric bassists, but few people know the extraordinary sojourn that brought him to Berkeley.
He was born in the Rhineland to a Liberian father and West German mother who settled in Monrovia after fleeing her homeland as an outcast due to having a mixed-race child. Eckhardt returned to Germany by himself at the age of 10, taken in by a foster family, and was already an acclaimed artist when he came to the United States to study at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, which is where guitar legend John McLaughlin recruited him for his expansive trio with Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu.
It’s not surprising that Eckhardt’s new band Zeitgeist, which performs Friday at the Jazzschool, reflects his global aesthetic. The ensemble has spent the past 18 months playing low-profile gigs and honing a repertoire of intricate original tunes while gradually peeling off personnel. These days Zeitgeist is a world-fusion quartet featuring Eckhardt on bass and vocals, Egyptian-born keyboardist Osam Ezzeldin, El Cerrito High alum Deszon Claiborne on drums, and Australian guitarist Chris Robinson, who’s now based in Benicia.
“We went through an experimental phase when Zeitgeist was as large as eight people, a mix of regular members and guests,” Eckhardt says. “Now it’s down to the core of the band, and the music is in a refining process. We’re trying to put something together that’s diverse, down tempo and up tempo, sensitive and groovecentric, plus funny stuff with lyrics.”
Eckhardt first gained widespread notice in the States though extensive touring with the McLaughlin Trio, a band memorably documented on the 1990 JMT album Live At The Royal Festival Hall. He’s also worked extensively with Berkeley tenor saxophonist George Brooks, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, and fusion drum pioneer Billy Cobham. But it’s as a founding member of the world jam band Garaj Mahal that he’s been most visible in recent years. Looking to create a similarly cosmopolitan combo after Mahal’s 2011 breakup, he contacted Ezzeldin, whom he had met in Istanbul while performing with German-born, Turkish-Greek bouzouki player Orhan Osman’s Turkophony All Stars. Ezzeldin played Eckhardt a few tracks of his music, which blew the bassist away.
“I thought, what planet is this guy from?” Eckhardt says. “It was like Chick Corea on steroids, super odd meters and ridiculous chops.”
Eckhardt didn’t know it at the time, but Ezzeldin had soaked up everything he played with McLaughlin. When Eckhardt called him about creating a new band about a year later, Ezzeldin, who has an American passport, immediately packed up his home in Boston and moved to the Bay Area. When he’s not playing in Turkey or rehearsing with Eckhardt he’s still making a name for himself on the West Coast. He jump started that process in March when he joined Zakir Hussain as a special guest at a sold-out SFJAZZ Center show, part of a superlative percussion showcase with Eric Harland, Steve Smith, and Puerto Rican conguero Giovanni Hidalgo (who immediately sought out Ezzeldin for a future collaboration).
“The John McLaughlin trio with Kai and Trilok, that band changed my personal direction,” says Ezzeldin, who recently relocated from San Francisco to Richmond to be closer to Eckhardt. “It was so funky. It’s like you never feel it’s really complex. There are all those odd meters, but groovy and melodic.”
A virtuoso who favors a minimum of drama off the bandstand, Eckhardt has known Chris Robinson since the guitarist moved to the Bay Area several years ago. Like Ezzeldin, Robinson has also played with George Brooks, and Eckhardt brought him to Turkey to collaborate with Orhan Osman. Beyond Robinson’s improvisational prowess, Eckhardt treasures his steadiness and good cheer.
“When I’m scrambling, he’s already there ready to play,” Eckhardt says. “He’s got a fantastic sense of humor, and he’s the only electric guitar player I‘ve ever known who you have to ask to turn up. And I’ve known Deszon since he was with Peter Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphics. He can play a groove as deep as any drummer out there.”
Eckhardt’s desire for stability and order make sense when considering the disorder of his childhood. Born in Mainz, the capital of Rhineland-Palatinate about 30 miles south of Frankfurt, he was uprooted at the age of six. His father was a medical intern from Liberia and his mother a midwife when his birth in 1961 upended her world. As an unwed mother with a mixed race child, she was shunned by her family, harassed on the street, and unable to rent an apartment. She followed Eckhardt’s father to Monrovia, where his German medical education made him part of the elite, but her hopes of establishing a family with him were dashed when she found he already had several wives. After a few years struggling as a single woman in Liberia, she seized upon an opportunity for her son to get an education and escape poverty when an elderly German couple who had babysat him in Mainz offered to take him in.
“I felt attached to Germany,” Eckhardt says. “It was clean and organized. Liberia was crazy and dirty and unpredictable. I went back into this stable situation where there was a man and woman and a home, no drama, no moving around. They had good relations with my mom and my dad, and both parents agreed it was the best way to basically get a decent education, and it ended up working out really well.”
He started playing the bass in his mid-teens, and after graduating from high school spent several years working with handicapped children as a conscientious objector. He had already played with jazz stars like Michael and Randy Brecker when he first came to the United States in 1983. He spent the next decade going back and forth between the US and Germany, living there for the last time in the early 90s when he left the McLaughlin Trio to take care of his foster father as his health faltered. The group gave him a parting gift however, when he met his Brazilian-born wife Regina Camargo, during an engagement at Yoshi’s, where she worked. He ended up moving to Berkeley in 1992 to be with her. They have two kids, and released an album last year, B-Link, featuring her poetry in Portuguese and English set to Eckhardt’s music.
His mother never went back to Germany. She stayed in Africa for most of her life, marrying a Dutch man whose work took them to Nigeria, Ghana, Iran, and other countries. After he retired they moved to Holland together, where she lives today.
A social justice and environmental activist who has collaborated on projects with Julia Butterfly Hill, Alli Chagi-Starr, and Van Jones, Eckhardt is often on the road, playing with an international cast of musicians and conducting master classes. When he thinks about the past, he doesn’t dwell upon the hard times. Rather, he sees the abrupt changes he endured “as a positive thing. I had to reassemble my view of the world and what people are all about. I think that benefits me today in terms of being open-minded, and not making assumptions about people, treating people with respect, and keeping it simple. I try not to rely on musical talents in terms of defining who I am. I had to learn that. I used to be influenced by school of thought that music is more important than anything else. But music is in the service of life, or being a human being, which can be difficult at times.”
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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