When the history of jazz and soul in Berkeley gets written, there’ll be a chapter on the Ellis house at 1333 Grant St. It’s where vocalist and songwriter Zoe Ellis grew up with her older brother, saxophonist Dave Ellis. It’s where she spent countless hours rehearsing with a succession of ensembles, cheered on by her mother, Judith Ellis, who was known for welcoming her daughter’s musical comrades as family.
AgapéSoul, her current band, was just starting to record its second album in July 2015 when Judith died, and though wracked with grief Zoe urged her collaborators to keep to the recording schedule. AgapéSoul celebrates the release of Conversations with a hometown gig Thursday at Cornerstone, a project that bandleader and bassist Darryl Anders dedicated to Judith Ellis (the East Bay soul band Feelosophy and DJ Malachi play opening sets).
“We used to rehearse in her living room and she was always so welcoming,” Anders says. “She passed the Sunday before we started to record and I told Zoe we don’t have to do this now. But Zoe said, ‘That’s what she would want us to do.’ I was nervous at first, but by the middle of the first session Zoe was rolling on the floor laughing. Her presence was definitely with us.”
While the album features an array of masters, including trombonist and Jazz Mafia don Adam Theis, percussionist Vicki Randle, keyboardist Ivan Neville, and guitarist Paul Jackson Jr., Thursday’s concert features the core band with Anders, Ellis, guitarist Cam Perridge, drummer Aaron Green, keyboardist Eamonn Flynn, and special guests like vocalist Bryan Dyer. It’s a buoyant, joyously grooving album that’s climbing the UK soul charts on the strength of the opening track, “Kite,” a piece co-written by Anders, Ellis, and Perridge. In many ways, the album reflects an expansive mutual admiration society, a circle of love populated by well-seasoned musicians with nothing to prove.
The album’s name speaks to Anders’ vision of music as a multi-directional forum “based on this concept that music is a conversation,” he says. “The connection between musicians themselves and with the listeners, the conversations we have with friends and coworkers. A conversation can change your life or change the world.”
The musical conversation between Ellis and Anders started more than two decades ago when he was recruited for the funk band Cleveland Lounge. Ellis was already the vocalist when he got the call that they were looking for a bassist. “My friend Ron Smith was the drummer, and when he sent me the music I listened to half of one song and fell in love with Zoe’s voice,” Anders recalls. “I said, tell them they found the bassist.”
Over the years they’ve played in various bands together, with Anders joining Zoe and Dave Ellis in Zadell and backing Zoe on her solo gigs. “There hasn’t been a time when we weren’t gigging together,” she says. “Several of us had been pushing him to work on his own music. He was working with Joe Gilman, the amazing jazz pianist who’s up in Sacramento now,” which led to the first AgapéSoul album, 2012’s Believe in Love.
The new album reflects a band that has grown together over the years, playing music they’ve created as a group. Ellis doesn’t sing on every track. She’s part of a soul-powered team that includes Ashling “Biscuit” Cole, Tommy Sims, Geoffrey Williams and the invaluable backup vocalist Sara Williams, who has toured and recorded with Ledisi. But as a songwriter and muse, Ellis’s deep musical roots inform AgapéSoul’s sound and sensibility.
Steeped in gospel music, she spent years with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and Glide Memorial Church choir. She first made a splash belting R&B with the Mo’Fessionals, and scored a gold record as part of The Braids with an uproarious, hip hop-inflected version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” featured on the soundtrack of the 1996 film High School High. More interested in pouring her energy into an ensemble than taking a star turn, she honed her improvisational chops with the a cappella ensemble SoVoSo and Keith Terry’s supremely creative all-body music band Slammin, and has worked with Linda Tillery’s Cultural Heritage Choir.
When she’s not writing songs, her primary musical passion these days, or shepherding her daughter Lilly to performances with the Alphabet Rockers, Ellis is keeping the spirit of 1333 Grant St. alive with AgapéSoul. “We write well as a unit,” she says. “I feel like whatever juju is in that house gets channeled into the music.”
Malian guitarist Mamadou Kelly, a rapidly rising master of the sinewy desert blues sound pioneered by Ali Farka Touré, plays Ashkenaz on Friday. A protégé of Touré’s, he made a lasting first impression with his 2013 debut album Adibar (Clermont Music). He was already well into his 40s and a seasoned pro, and he made the most of the opportunity.
Multi-reed player Sheldon Brown is one of the Bay Area’s indispensable artists, a highly versatile player who can be found at the California Jazz Conservatory on Sundays with the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra (he’s a longtime saxophone coach at Berkeley High, too). Back in 2014 he premiered his strange and gorgeous work Blood of the Air at SFJAZZ, inspired by the voice and verse of proto-Beat poet Phillip Lamantia, who emerged suddenly in the mid-1940s as an improbably accomplished San Francisco high school student. Commissioned by San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music and Chamber Music America’s 2013 New Jazz Works program, Brown composed by transcribing the pitch and rhythm of Lamantia’s recitation. “His voice was mellifluous, dreamy, lazy but very rich, almost theatrical, with swooping vowels,” says Brown, who celebrates the upcoming release of the album Blood of the Air Saturday at the Back Room with a stellar cast of players, including trumpeter Darren Johnston, Andrew Joron on Theremin, guitarist John Finkbeiner, pianists Jonathan Alford and Dan Zemelman, bassist Michael Wilcox, drummer Alan Hall, and the singular vocalist Lorin Benedict.