Paul Hanson has spent much of his life taking the bassoon into realms where the horn has never before traveled. From world jazz and klezmer to funk and rock, the Berkeley native refuses to be bounded by the irascible double-reed’s traditional symphonic role. Based in American Canyon since the end of a four-year stint with Cirque du Soleil in Japan, he returns to town for a California Jazz Conservatory performance at 8 p.m. Friday with the duo Oon featuring the inventive electric bassist Ariane Cap.
Pronounced like the last syllable of Hanson’s instrument (“just subtract the bass from bassoon,” he says), the duo released a debut album Polaris in 2013, and they’ve continued to refine and expand a surprisingly varied array of material. While the album focuses on original material by both musicians (Cap often composes with Austrian multi-instrumentalist Wolf Wein, the album’s co-producer), they’ve also devised striking arrangements of familiar songs, such as “Stella By Starlight” and “Dear Prudence.”
“It still comes down to playing the melody and the groove,” Hanson says. “We’re getting ready to record our second album and we’ve done a lot of writing for it, but we also like to approach things that people already have a reference for. Covers never go out of style.”
The instrumental pairing might seem bottom-heavy, but between Cap’s highly melodic approach to the six-string bass and Hanson’s array of electronic effects, the duo often attains an orchestral sound. Playing without any devices, Hanson produces a sound so full, round and flexible that it’s easy to forget about the instrument that’s producing it. When he alters it electronically, the bassoon can take on eerie or ethereal timbres. Either way, the results are often breathtaking, as he glides and swoops from the horn’s piping upper register to its burnished depths.
“We try not to be all on the low end at the same time,” he says. “When I’m doing things that are more chordal, Ariane gets to play more melodically. We want to be experimental, but experimental with a purpose. We’re always trying to refine our sound, to find ways to be more of a chamber experience and sound like more than two people playing.”
Hanson gets a chance to explore his musical roots as part of the 30th Jewish Music Festival on March 12 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, when he premieres a newly commissioned work.
Growing up in Berkeley, he witnessed the klezmer revival first hand, as his father, Lew Hanson, was an early member of the Klezmorim, playing reeds and accordion in the pioneering Berkeley ensemble. The six-piece band features several long-time compatriots, including Berkeley guitarist John Schott, drummer Alan Hall, and cellist Moses Sedler, a bandmate from his years with violinist Daniel Hoffman’s Davka, which gracefully blended Eastern European Jewish musical forms with Middle Eastern rhythms and cadences. The group also features recent connections violinist Mads Tolling (who earned several Grammys with Turtle Island Quartet), and bassist Jeff Denson.
Though Hanson’s father wasn’t Jewish, he gravitated to the Ashkenazi music of his wife’s heritage, and they formed the Hanson Family Balkan Brass Band, which introduced Paul to odd meters. After graduating from Berkeley High in 1979, he played saxophone and bassoon with Peter Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphics Ensemble, and studied European classical music at the San Francisco Conservatory. Eventually Hanson joined the Klezmorim himself (which is when he decided to focus on bassoon).
All of these musical memories came flooding back when he was in Japan playing with Cirque du Soleil. The extended sojourn outside of the United States, in a country with an ancient, uninterrupted culture, got him thinking about his own cultural lineage.
He always identified strongly with Berkeley, but “when you’re away from home for a while you think about, what do I gravitate to?” Hanson says. “My lineage really comes from Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, leftists involved in labor union struggle. I’m working on a lot of new music for this commission that draws on the klezmer I grew up with, something in between a song cycle and a body of tunes using different configurations. I take certain phraseologies and trills from these traditional piece that are part of who I am.”
Recommended gigs: Josh Jones, String-tet, Tiptons Saxophone Quartet
Berkeley High alumni are out in force on Friday night. In addition to Hanson’s show, drummer Josh Jones reunites with guitarist Will Bernard at the Claremont Hotel, and trumpeter Erik Jekabson, who hails from a later generation of the Berkeley High jazz band, brings his String-tet to the Hillside Club. Teaming up with ace jazz pianist Adam Shulman in a concert featuring the music of Duke Ellington, Jekabson has assembled a stellar band with drummer Smith Dobson, bassist John Wiitala, vibraphonist Dillon Vado, saxophonist Michael Zilber, violist Charith Premawardhana, and violinist Anthony Blea.
The Tiptons Saxophone Quartet plays the Freight on Sunday as part of double bill with singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Madeline Tasquin’s trio. The Tiptons play fiercely grooving music drawing on a daunting array of rhythmic traditions, from post-bop jazz and Cresent City funk to West African highlife and Balkan brass bands. The group’s latest incarnation features Amy Denio, Jessica Lurie, Sue Orfield, Tina Richerson and guest drummer Tarik Abouzied.
To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, be sure to check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. And submit your own events: it’s self-serve and free.