Michael Zilber doesn’t have a tattoo of the Beatles’ Apple Records logo on his chest, but he’s got the next best proof of his Fab Four devotion, courtesy of his first born. While the Albany tenor saxophonist is one of the leading lights of the Bay Area jazz scene, he’s maintained a parallel passion for the Beatles since he bought his first LP in 1972, a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Decades later, when it came time to choose a name for their son, Zilber and his late wife, actress, singer and writer Carla Zilbersmith, hit upon Maclen, the name of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s US publishing company.
“I come by my Beatles love honestly,” says Zilber, who premieres his new project John & Paul Reimagined Friday at the California Jazz Conservatory’s Renden Hall. “I fell in love with their music at the same time I fell in love with jazz.”
He’d long thought about starting a band to interpret Beatles tunes with the same creative freedom that he approaches American Songbook standards. But it wasn’t until he performed with the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra at the UC Theatre in 2017 as part of the UnderCover Presents golden anniversary celebration of Sgt. Pepper’s that Zilber found the ideal collaborator in Joe Bagale.
A jazz-steeped singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer and confirmed Beatles fanatic, Bagale directed the UnderCover production, a role he came to naturally as he’s produced San Anselmo’s annual Beatles In the Park concert with his Jazz Mafia confederates for years. He spent two years on the road as keyboardist and lead vocalist with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, but he’s been heard more widely as his soul-stepped alter ego Otis McDonald, whose YouTube-commissioned tracks for the site’s free audio library have been viewed more than 7.5 billion times.
“I had seen Joe but we didn’t travel in the same circles,” Zilber says. “When I met him and heard him sing at the UnderCover event I immediately realized he’s a seriously bad musician. His singing is off the hook. He’s got a lot of soul and R&B and funk in his sound. He’s also a really good drummer and bassist. I really wanted to do something with the songs of my youth, and I told him you’re the guy I want to sing on this.”
Filling out the rest of the band Zilber tapped well-traveled pianist John R. Burr, another versatile player with encyclopedic knowledge of Lennon and McCartney’s music, and the stellar rhythm section tandem of bassist Dan Feiszli, and drummer Jeff Marrs, “guys who understand the two worlds,” Zilber says. “A lot of the time when I’ve heard jazz/Beatles tributes, they’re doing covers or swinging the Beatles. I wanted to find a way to honor the originals and put our stamp on it with new harmony and new rhythms. The only thing I don’t touch is the melody. You need players who can navigate all the sneaky stuff happening underneath those amazing melodies.”’
John & Paul Reimagined unleashes the latent funk in “Come Together” and turns “Norwegian Wood” into a torch ballad. The quintet interprets “Blackbird” and “Julia,” “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “In My Life” but the program actually extends beyond the Beatles, encompassing various solo pieces such as Lennon’s “No. 9 Dream” and McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed.”
In many ways Friday’s show is a trial run for a project that Zilber is hoping has some legs. He figures his Beatlephilia is a condition shared by plenty of other folks who’ll recognize that his heart is in the right place. “For a concept to be real,” he says, “it has to be an authentic expression of something the musicians deeply love, and it is for me and everybody in the band.”