Experiencing Fantasy (Studios) with Jemal Ramirez; other gigs to go to

Drummer Jemal Ramirez performs Saturday at Oakland’s Piedmont Piano and Sunday at San Jose Jazz’s Summer Fest before recording a new album Monday at Fantasy Studios. Photo: Courtesy of artist

San Jose drummer Jemal Ramirez is under no illusions about the economics of making jazz records, but he can’t resist the opportunity to get musicians he loves in the studio.

He performs Saturday at Oakland’s Piedmont Piano and Sunday at San Jose Jazz’s Summer Fest in preparation for an all-day session Monday at Fantasy Studios with SFJAZZ Collective vibraphonist Warren Wolf, pianist Matt Clark and bassist Giulio Xavier Cetto. “I save up all year to do this,” says Ramirez, who’s on summer break from his job teaching music at Saratoga’s Redwood Middle School.

Like just about everyone else, he was caught off guard by last week’s sudden news that Fantasy Recording Studios is closing as of Sept. 15 (a story broken by Berkeleyside). The Bay Area’s most storied recording facility has birthed albums by many of jazz’s greatest artists over the past four decades, including Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Cannonball Adderley, Kenny Burrell, Bill Evans, Art Pepper, Chick Corea, and Dexter Gordon.

“I found out on social media and I jumped on the phone to make sure I still have this date,” Ramirez says. “I’m thinking now that I’ll invite some musicians like Bob Kenmotsu,” the Berkeley saxophonist, “and maybe Smith Dobson, and do a jam session kind of thing. If we have enough material recorded from the first half of the day, we can have a send-off for Fantasy from Bay Area musicians.”


He got the idea to invite listeners into the studio watching Let’s Get Lost, Bruce Weber’s classic 1988 documentary about Chet Baker, “and also seeing video of Snarky Puppy with a small audience in the recording studio,” he says.

He’s recorded two earlier albums at Fantasy featuring Warren Wolf and Matt Clark. On 2015’s Pomponio he documented an all-star septet session with saxophonist Howard Wiley, percussionist John Santos, trumpeter Joel Behrman and the late, much missed bassist John Shifflett that Wolf co-produced. Pretty much the same cast returned on 2017’s critically hailed African Skies (minus Santos and with Mike Olmos taking over on trumpet), with Shifflett joining Ramirez and Wolf as a co-producer. The drummer decided to focus on a stripped-down ensemble for this run of dates partly as a way to showcase Clark, a brilliant pianist who rarely seeks the spotlight for himself (the Piedmont Piano gig is a trio session minus Wolf).

“Nationally speaking, he’s still under the radar, and I want to get his name out there more,” Ramirez says.

Next week, Clark (and bassist Cetto) join an all-star East Coast contingent at San Jose’s Café Stritch for the 6th Annual Rahsaanathon, a celebration of the singular saxophonist/flutist Rahsaan Roland Kirk led by trombone star Steve Turre, who recently describe Clark to me as “a fabulous pianist. He plays the real deal swing. He got that New York training.”

After years of flying under the radar himself, Ramirez’s recordings have offered a potent reminder of his early years. At the turn of the century he was a Bay Area jazz mainstay who performed and recorded with rising stars like Howard Wiley (Twenty First Century Negro), bassist Marcus Shelby (The Lights Suite), and veteran artists such as saxophonist Steve Heckman (Live at Yoshi’s) and vocalist Diane Witherspoon (After Dark). But since taking a full-time teaching position in 2005, he’s been a scarce presence on Bay Area bandstands.

In many ways the Modesto native approached making his first album the same way he’s conducted his entire self-directed musical life, with a big dose of moxie laced by several drops of good timing. A fan of the vibes, he contacted Wolf sight-unseen via Facebook about collaborating on a recording “and he got back to me right away,” Ramirez says. “He’s super busy, on the road all the time, and he was really cool that way.”

Wolf was impressed by Ramirez’s deep reservoir of material from the artists who defined the Blue Note label’s exploratory post-bop edge in the 1960s, such as vibraphone legend Bobby Hutcherson’s Latin-tinged “Pomponio,” Wayne Shorter’s “Prince of Darkness,” Herbie Hancock’s “Alone and I” and Tony Williams’ “Citadel.” But Ramirez casts a much wider net, drawing on oft-overlooked mid-career masters for material, such as pianist Donald Brown’s beautiful “Waltz For Monk,” altoist Kenny Garrett’s surging Sonny Rollins tribute “J’Ouvert,” and tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffrey’s imploring ballad “Tell Me Why.”


“It’s a really well-rounded repertoire, with some obscure tunes that people don’t usually call,” Wolf says. “Jemal is a very talented drummer. He sometimes reminds me of Tony Williams from the 1980s. When he sets up he’s got a huge kit, but he’s very musical on it. Very solid and in the pocket.”

Recommended gig: Hamilton de Holanda at Freight & Salvage

On Thursday the revered Brazilian mandolin star and composer Hamilton de Holanda performs at Freight & Salvage with special guest Roberta Sá, a stunning vocalist from northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte.

The Starry Plough’s eclectic music programming means you never quite know what to expect when you walk in. On Saturday, the music embodies the unexpected, with a solo set for vocals and electronics by the inimitable composer Amy X Neuburg followed by a solo performance by pianist Thollem, who describes his self-invented genre as “psychpunk worldblues noiselounge post-Americana.” A prolific recording artist who has created an expansive body of music documented on more than 60 albums for 22 different labels, he’s an often surprisingly lyrical improviser who’s in the midst of a song-based project “Thollem’s Hot Pursuit of Happiness.” He and Neuburg will end the evening with several improvisational duets.

Recommended gig: House of Faern at California Jazz Conservatory

Saxophonist Beth Schenck, pianist John Wood, violinist Jenny Scheinman and guitarist Matt Wrobel are House of Faarn, a collective quartet that makes its Bay Area debut Wednesday at the CJC’s Rendon Hall. Photo: Courtesy of artists

And on Wednesday, Jazz in the Neighborhood presents House of Faern in the California Jazz Conservatory’s Rendon Hall. I’ve never seen the band, which is making its East Bay debut, but violinist Jenny Scheinman and alto saxophonist Beth Schenck are reliably enthralling musicians who make transporting music. They’re joined by guitarist Matt Wrobel, and pianist John Wood in the cooperative quartet. Founded on the banks of the Mattole River, near where Scheinman grew up on a homestead in rural Petrolia, the ensemble sees their group sensibility as reflecting “the complexities of wild landscapes. Singularly conceived compositions become freshly charted maps. With little hesitation, we find ourselves bounding across their valleys, trustfully pushing and pulling down the river trail, discovering peaks and caves and occasionally even routing underneath toward those hidden, unmarked sides of the map.”