Junior Reggae bring sleek sounds of Jamaica to Jupiter

Junior Reggae (Rob Ewing, Jason Levis, and Steven Blum) play Jupiter Tuesdays in May. Photo by Eric Vogler.
Junior Reggae (Rob Ewing, Jason Levis, and Steven Blum) play Jupiter Tuesdays in May. Photo by Eric Vogler

When Caribbean rhythms seduce a jazz musician, Cuba is usually the alluring culprit. But for multi-instrumentalist Rob Ewing the loping grooves of Jamaica have proven irresistible. An accomplished drummer and skilled trombonist who performs every Sunday with the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra at Doc’s Lab in North Beach, Ewing holds down the bass chair in three reggae combos, including the 10-piece Pavlov’s Band, the five-piece Reggae On the Radio, and the trio Junior Reggae, which plays Jupiter every week in May as part of the pub’s Tuesday Jazzidency series.

Featuring Steven Blum on keyboards and drummer Jason Levis, Junior Reggae is an instrumental ensemble that was born in Berkeley. Ewing and Levis have been making music together since their undergrad days in Boulder at Naropa University (where they both studied with piano legend Art Lande). Since arriving in the Bay Area in the early aughts, they’ve played in a variety of settings together, but it was reggae that forged their connection as a rhythm-section tandem. As the director of the Jazzschool Community Music School, Ewing was on hand when Levis, an associate professor at the California Jazz Conservatory, needed a bassist for a reggae class.

“We ended up playing a lot together as bass and drums and it was a nice hook-up,” Ewing says. “We had quite a few duo rehearsals learning the classic grooves, but also explored a lot of experimental approaches. We were intrigued by playing reggae grooves and stretching the beat, inspired by what J Dilla is doing in hip hop.”

Though they started rehearsing together as a duo with no plans for gigs or recording, the forum for experimentation soon evolved into the three variously sized reggae units, all propelled by their elastic bass-and-drums work. Dedicated to “avant dub reggae” and set to record in May, Pavlov’s Band features a bevy of Berkeleyans, including guitarist John Schott and Berkeley High alumni Danny Lubin-Laden (trombone) and Raffi Garabedian (saxophones).


“Reggae On the Radio is totally happening also, though the Junior Reggae trio is the most practical line up,” Ewing says. “It’s very versatile, and we’re in a very experimental stage. Steve is always bringing in different synthesizers, and we’re rehearsing a lot, trying out different approaches. We do some fun covers, and I’m writing a lot of originals, very much inspired by Skatalites and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.”

Ewing has long history of applying a supple improvisational sensibility to music far outside the jazz canon. A decade ago he debuted Disappear Incompletely at the Jazzschool, an electro-acoustic band dedicated to exploring the music of Radiohead. Featuring heavyweights like saxophonists Kasey Knudsen and Patrick Cress, the group celebrates the release of its debut album at the Sound Room in Oakland on May 20.

Junior Reggae brings a jazz approach to the dub sound, but Ewing is very much inspired by hip hop when it comes to production and generating rhythmic tension through telegraphic phrasing. Rather than using tunes as launching pads for extended solos, “we wanted a much more textural approach, drawing on the free jazz world, particularly Sun Ra and noise elements of free improv. Wayne Shorter’s current band is a huge inspiration. When you listen to his album Footprints Live, it’s not exactly like someone’s taking a solo. We say, don’t take a full solo, take a half solo. The idea is leaving space for other players to get involved with what you’re doing.”

Recommended gigs: Anat Cohen, Dann Zinn, Nell Robinson

Anat Cohen plays the Berkeley Choro Festival on Saturday
Anat Cohen plays the Berkeley Choro Festival on Thursday, May 5

The great Israeli reed player Anat Cohen performs at Freight & Salvage on Thursday May 5 as part of the Berkeley Choro Festival as special guest with Trio Brasileiro (her younger brother, trumpeter Avishai Cohen happens to play Yoshi’s on May 4). Featuring guitarist Douglas Lora, mandolin virtuoso Dudu Maia and percussionist Alexandre Lora, the trio played a dazzling set at last year’s Choro festival. An esteemed tenor saxophonist and award-winning clarinetist, Cohen is a longtime devotee of choro, an ebulliently grooving Brazilian instrumental style dating back to the 19th century. She recorded an album with Trio Brasileiro last year.

Over the past two decades tenor saxophonist/composer Dann Zinn has nurtured many of the Bay Area’s finest young saxophonists (including Berkeley High grads Dayna Stephens and Hitomi Oba). Recently appointed director of Cal State East Bay’s Jazz Studies program, he gets a chance to play his gorgeous original compositions as the California Jazz Conservatory 8 p.m. Saturday from his acclaimed album Shangri La with guitarist Chris Robinson and drummer Alan Hall.


And Berkeley vocalist Nell Robinson celebrates her birthday and the release of a new album at The Back Room 7 p.m. Saturday with her co-bandleader Jim Nunally on guitar. The bluegrass-Americana combo also features Pete Grant on pedal steel, Jim Kerwin on bass and Jon Arkin on percussion.

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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