It’s a good thing there are no quotas restricting the quantity of soul in Berkeley on any given weekend, because we’d be well over the limit come Sunday. The musical offerings at Freight & Salvage alone deliver a brimming congregation full of spirit. Friday and Saturday bring the return of singer, songwriter and guitarist Toshi Reagon’s BIGLovely, an all-women ensemble that gathers an extraordinary cast of artists together under her sheltering umbrella. And on Sunday afternoon, hometown Berkeley jazz hero Benny Green makes his debut at the venue with his superlative trio, celebrating the release of his new album Then and Now.
Part of the first generation who came through the BUSD system when it was suffused with music at every grade level, Green is one of jazz’s most infectiously swinging pianists. Sunday’s matinee (and Monday’s show at his favorite venue, Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center) welcome him back to town after a four-year professorship at the University of Michigan. Young in spirit and looking as boyish as ever at 55, something about Green has changed. In recent months he’s emerged as a startlingly candid and arrestingly perceptive writer via regular Facebook entries detailing formative encounters with jazz giants.
A recent post covered the time that Green lost all of Betty Carter’s piano music when he left it behind in a cab. “Her ENTIRE piano book of original big band parts scored by Gigi Gryce, handwritten charts by John Hicks. All of it – gone.” He was about 20, and in the early months of his four-year stint with the legendary singer, who had turned her band into a proving ground for the music’s most promising young players. Distraught and trembling with fear, Green describes his thoughts as he considered the implications for his budding career.
“Nothing, nothing left to do but to face certain death, firing, banishment from living in New York, and for that matter, any horizon as a professional performer… I had never considered that the way my life would end would be Betty Carter somehow physically dismembering me. This was not going to be a good fate for my life. Those were my thoughts of myself, they were mortal ones, but I soon became so overwhelmingly consumed by the worst flood of guilt you can imagine, that I just knew I had to telephone Betty immediately.”
He survived the gaffe not just intact, but with his soul expanded by Carter’s generosity. The Facebook posts offer a preview of the memoir he’s working on, a project that he began before the University of Michigan gig came up. “I was living in Berkeley and started writing essays,” Green says. “Most of them on the very themes that are in the posts. The nature of the original drafts were long and sprawling, with a whole lot of segues.”
Much like an arrangement gets refined as it’s played night after night, Green found that feedback from his Michigan students helped him develop his voice as a writer. Teaching responsibilities didn’t leave him much time to write music however, and he’s thrilled to open a new chapter with Then and Now, which features his trio with Wong and Washington as well as contributions by his Berkeley homie Josh Jones on percussion, flutist Anne Drummond, and vocalist Veronica Swift. His 20th album as a leader, the project marks the first time he’s recorded on Fender Rhodes, the electric piano with a sound inextricably linked to 1970s film and television scores. As a child of 1963, “I’ve always been fascinated with the Rhodes,” Green says. It’s also the first time he’s included flute or vocals on one of his albums.
He connected with Drummond in 2012 when she recorded several of his compositions for her album Revolving (Origin). Featured on the session, which included his tunes “Magic Beans” and “Harold Land,” Green loved the way the flute “brightened the timbres,” he says. “And working with Veronica on her upcoming Mack Avenue debut totally blew my socks off. We’ve been enjoying playing with her. This was a nice opportunity to stretch out a bit, to widen my palette. I’ve been very conservative with projects. I’ve had to be talked into situations.”
If Green tends to keep his recordings on a tight leash, Toshi Reagon has often treated her projects like she’s hosting a party. She brought her sprawling band BIGLovely to the Freight for the first time last year, and returns for performances Friday and Saturday with another talent-packed lineup. The daughter of Sweet Honey In the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon, Toshi launched the project in 1996 as a vehicle to showcase some of the amazing women musicians around her in New York City.
“It started out as a band of instrumentalists and we always had at least three singers,” she says. “Over the years some 30 to 40 different musicians have weaved in and out. It’s a group for singers, especially if you like to sing congregationally. It’s not a jam band. It’s a family band.”
A few of BIGLovely’s first musicians are still in the fold, like vocalist/guitarist Judith Casselberry, a well-traveled musician who’s an associate professor of Africana studies at Maine’s Bowdoin College. Others have pursued their own paths, like Catherine Russell, one of jazz’s most celebrated singers when she’s not on tour singing backup with Steely Dan. Powering the band is drummer Allison Miller, who headlined at the Freight last month with her stellar jazz ensemble Boom Tic Boom.
After a friend dropped Miller’s name to Reagon as a sub for a show about 15 years ago, she was duly impressed. It was a while before Reagon realized that Miller was also a rising star in jazz as a bandleader. “I didn’t know, then I bought one of her records and it was like, who’s this?! When I realized what could happen with just her cymbal and a snare drum, it opened somethings up. There are a few songs that wouldn’t have gotten written without Alli.”
BIGLovely also features Marcelle Davies Lashley and Josette Newsam Marchak, vocalist/bassist Ganessa James, violinist Juliette Jones, guitarist/vocalist Alex Nolan, percussionist/vocalist Christelle Durandy, and Berkeley’s own Maya Kronfeld on keyboards.
“These women are all at the peak of their careers,” Reagon says. “BIGLovely doesn’t usually have a keyboard player, but Maya Kronfeld was moving to New York and Christelle said keep an eye out for her. When we were doing a festival and she came and played that, and since then I’ve added her a few times. Maya is really cool, and really fun to play this music with. It’s her hometown, and I thought we’d be able to shine a little light on her in the place she’s from.”
Reagon isn’t known for seeking out the spotlight herself. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts named her as one of the 2018 YBCA 100 honorees, which recognizes “people, organizations, and movements that are using their platforms to create change and move society forward,” citing her new work Parable of the Sower: The Opera based on seminal black science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler’s post-apocalyptic novel. But since the YBCA 100 Summit is on Nov. 3, Reagon will instead be rocking out at the Freight.