I’m not going to retell the story of the brief and intense courtship of Mike McGinnis and Davalois Fearon. It would be hard to improve on the account that ran in the New York Times, which details how the fiercely creative artists quickly sized each other up on their first date. But I can pick up where that tale left off and fill you in on the next chapter, which debuts 8 p.m. Sunday at the Berkeley Arts Festival space on University Avenue.
Fearon, an essential, decade-long member of the Stephen Petronio Company, is still a featured dancer, but she’s starting to make the transition to the next phase of her career. She’s taking over as the Petronio Company’s rehearsal director, and is finding, quite unexpectedly, a creative outlet as a choreographer. She opens Sunday’s performance with her piece Consider Water, which features a score by McGinnis, a reed player particularly known as a clarinetist.
She created the piece after a conversation with a UN ambassador working on water scarcity issues. Born in Jamaica and raised in the Bronx, Fearon spent some of her early years in the island’s countryside without running water, and she mentioned that she had first-hand experience with the issue. When he responded, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’ she was at a loss, until realizing that she could use dance as a medium for a difficult message. Originally presented as one-woman piece, Consider Water has expanded into a multi-media performance for four dancers and four musicians. On Sunday, she’s revisiting its original distilled form, dancing solo with McGinnis playing his score solo.
“This piece has turned into a life changing thing for me,” says Fearon, 31, who goes by Dava (day-va). “I was inspired to make it out of passion and wrote grants to fund it with the intention that my goodwill would make some kind of wave in the universe, but I was never really thinking that it would become a career changer. Consider Water has given me multiple choreographic opportunities, and I can see myself becoming a full-time choreographer.”
For McGinnis the chance to create a musical setting for his life partner was a welcome addition to his already brimming creative commitments. While he fits comfortably in the world of jazz, he’s hardly bound by the tradition. He hasn’t worked much in the Bay Area since the Berkeley’s Hillside Club presented the 2007 West Coast debut of The Four Bags, a chamber quartet devoted to original music that also features accordionist Jacob Garchik (son of Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik). He’s worked on Broadway as a featured tenor sax soloist in Fela!
He’s been most visible here via his work with Stew & the Negro Problem, which is actually what led to Sunday’s date. Stew is the guitarist and composer who with Negro Problem partner Heidi Rodewald created the musical Passing Strange, which premiered at the Berkeley Rep before its successful run on Broadway. He’s presenting a new song cycle Dec. 3-5 at the Curran Theater, Notes of a Native Song, a work commissioned by Harlem Stage as part of the celebration of the 90th anniversary of James Baldwin’s birth.
“Stew’s a great story teller,” McGinnis says. “The stories drive the songs, and musically they go in very different directions, country and punk and free improv.”
McGinnis is part of Stew’s five-piece band with Rodewald (who co-wrote the music) on acoustic and electric guitars, They Might Be Giants drummer Marty Beller, and pianist Art Terry. Featuring his woodwind work prominently in the piece, Stew wrote me in an email exchange that “Mike is my favorite soloist because he interrogates the changes like a gumshoe with a sax, using humor, emotion and intelligence to lure profound confessions outta the song. His mischievous wit and fearlessness are always surprising, refreshing and arresting.”
There is an East Bay connection to the music that McGinnis presents Sunday at Berkeley Arts Festival. After Considering Water, he’s performing Bill Smith’s “Concerto for Clarinet and Combo” from his 2013 CD Road Trip (RKM Music), and some recent original pieces. He’s assembled a stellar Bay Area band for the concert, including reed players Kasey Knudsen, Rob Sudduth and Sheldon Brown, trumpeter Erik Jekabson, trombonist Jeff Cressman, pianist Rob Reich, bassist Dave Ewell, drummer Jon Arkin, and Doug Morton on French horn.
Still active at 89, the Oakland-reared Smith is best known in jazz circles as an early collaborator with Dave Brubeck, who he met at Mills College when they were both students of Darius Milhaud (he continued to collaborate intermittently with Brubeck until the pianist’s death). Smith earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Cal studying composition with Roger Sessions and forged a prolific and successful career as a new music composer (under the name William O. Smith). McGinnis fell in love with his writing when he found an obscure 1957 LP by Shelly Manne and His Men, Concerto for Clarinet and Combo (Contemporary). With an introduction to Smith from clarinetist and scientist Jesse Canterbury, he had a chance to go over the original score with the composer.
“I sat with him at the piano with him going through it and he would say, I envisioned part in the low register,” says McGinnis, 42. “His writing is incredible writing, very far ahead of its time and not stuck in the jazz language of that time. On the recordings his playing is so fluid, and what he’s playing is mostly improvised. You can blow over the changes and it will work, but can also get into another zone and learn how to drive the piece.”
He first assembled the band Mike McGinnis + 9 to play Smith’s three-movement concerto, but “the piece is only 20 minutes. If I was going to record it, I needed another piece. I was studying his piece a lot, how he put it together, trying to figure out what he’s doing that makes me love it. What if I wrote a piece using my own harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic ideas?”
“Road Trip” ended up sketching something of a cautionary tale, tracing the rise and fall of two relationships. When he met Fearon, he was determined not to make the same mistakes. “We were in relationships where we’d overlooked a lot of important red flags,” McGinnis says. “We both felt we just need to be with another artist, a person who understands the freedom that requires timewise.”
When Fearon started choreographing for her own company, it was natural that McGinnis wrote the music. They’re determined to find and make opportunities to work and travel together, though she acknowledges that their creative commitment could be characterized as what Dan Savage calls “monogamish.”
“We’re joined at the hip,” Fearon says. “I love his work. I love his music and what he does, and the more we work together the more we share the same vision. Our chemistry works really well. That’s our goal and focus, to be touring together. If there are some side projects with other artists that come along, we’re free to pursue those too.”
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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