The last time I talked with Berkeley bassist/composer Kurt Ribak he was heading back into surgery yet again and still very much in the process of recovering from a devastating 2012 car crash that shattered his left arm. Over the course of four years, and about a dozen major operations, he’d start playing again, go back for more repair and step away from the instrument, then return to the bass to recalibrate his physical gains and losses. But it’s been two years since he last went under the knife, and he makes his Freight & Salvage debut Monday celebrating the release of Onward (Rodia Records), a new album that marks his moving on from trauma.
“They weren’t able to bring things back to 100%,” says Ribak (which is pronounced like the shoe, REE-bok). “Too much was lost. I had to make a lot of choices on how to play the bass. You can move your hand this way, or you can move it that way. It’s changed my bass playing a little bit, but the guys in the band say they don’t hear a disability. I notice the difference, but others might not. You adapt. What’s the alternative?”
He credits a good deal of his resilience to his close-knit cast of musical collaborators. The band he brings to the Freight is largely the same group that’s featured on the project, including album co-producers and longtime collaborators Lincoln Adler on saxophones and Greg Sankovich on piano and keyboards. Ribak and Adler met as kids in the San Francisco Boys Chorus (“Kurt describes us as recovering sopranos,” Adler says), and started playing with Sankovich in the UC Jazz Ensemble when they were students at Cal in the 1980s.
“They have my back musically and personally, and were very instrumental in my recovery,” Ribak says. “They’re my brothers in arms, and they’ve been there for me in some hairy times. I try to be there for them. It’s great to have a steady band of this caliber.”
Ribak, Adler and Sankovich all went their separate ways, but hooked up again not long after Adler moved back to the Bay Area from Los Angeles in 2001 and settled in Berkeley. “We’ve really developed a unique connection,” says Adler, who performs in an array of ensembles, including the collective quartet Times 4. “Kurt is an amazing writer. There are all these different kinds of pieces he can call when we’re on stage. We like to play around with rhythm a lot. With Greg, the trio is really strong, and we can play without drums.”
At the Freight they’re joined by ace drummer Alan Hall and veteran percussionist Michaelle Goerlitz. Myles Boisen contributes on lap steel and electric guitar, and Ross Wilson plays flugelhorn and trombone. “Greg and Lincoln have helped shape sound of the band,” Ribak says. “My writing process involves having the musicians playing the tunes while they take final form.
Involved in a number of different ensembles, Ribak also plays with the Imperial Jazz Co., a band featuring Myles Boisen, Crying Time vocalist Jill Rogers, violinist John Ettinger, guitarist John Finkbiner, saxophonists Phillip Greenlief and David Slusser, and drummer John Hanes, among others. The group performs at San Francisco’s Bird & Beckett on June 2 and at the Starry Plough on June 22 on a stellar double bill with Orchestra Nostalgico
A Berkeley native whose parents met as students at Cal, Ribak was driving east on Cedar on the morning of June 19, 2012 when a northbound car blew through the stop sign at Eighth Street and t-boned his truck. The paramedics from nearby Station Six were on the scene almost immediately, and as they transported him to Highland Hospital he urged them to save his arm.
More than a return to form, Onward introduces Ribak as a songwriter and vocalist, a facet he started to focus on “in part because I was singing more when I was hurt,” he says. “It was a way to keep doing music when I couldn’t use my hands much.”
He’s never had any interaction with the person driving the car that hit him, and he sounds philosophical when he talks about the experience and how it changed his life. “I often bump up against physical limitations, but that’s always true playing music,” he says. “There are no further surgery’s planned. When I’m not playing music I’m rowing on the Bay or taking care of my mother. I returned to my previously scheduled life. The previous album was telling people I’m back or didn’t go away. But this one is moving onward with life and music.”
Recommended gigs: Saxophonist Rent Romus / Let’s Call This
Fans of adventurous improvisation have two brilliant options on Wednesday. At Albany’s Ivy Room, saxophonist Rent Romus’s Life’s Blood Ensemble continues its monthly residency as part of the Ivy Room Improv/Experimental Hootenanny, presenting new works with special guest Vinny Golia. A major force on LA’s improvised music scene for some four decades, Golia has collaborated with a vast menagerie of musical seekers, and runs the indie label 9 Winds, which long served as an essential outlet. The Richmond-based Romus has played a similar role in the Bay Area with his label Edgetone Records, which has released dozens of bracing albums over the past 25 years. His rambunctious Life’s Blood Ensemble features Timothy Orr on drums and percussion, Safa Shokrai and Max Judelson on double bass, Heikki “Mike” Koskinen on e-trumpet and recorder, vibraphonist Mark Clifford, and tenor saxophonist Joshua Marshall.
Meanwhile, over at the California Jazz Conservatory, Jazz in the Neighborhood continues its Wednesday Neighborhood Residency series with Let’s Call This featuring drummer Vijay Anderson, bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, and saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh. Exploring original compositions, structured improvisations, and conceptual gambits, the new collective trio brings together three powerhouse improvisers. Mezzacappa has been a catalytic force on the West Coast for nearly two decades as a bandleader, collaborator and curator who can reliably be found at the center of creatively charged performances.
Anderson makes time signature pivots with balletic grace and brings an accute attention to texture to the drum set. And Modirzadeh, a professor of creative/world music at San Francisco State University, is a giant who has managed to stay on the downlow by devoting much of his time to teaching and writing. Steeped in classical Persian modes, he’s spent years creating musical situations that encompass numerous traditions, embracing flamenco and Turkish makam, Moroccan Gnawa and African-American jazz idioms. This might be the start of something big.