Have piano, will travel: John Brothers Piano Company plays the Book Festival

John Brothers Piano Company are in their element playing on the corner of Allston and MLK Saturday and Sunday afternoon as part of the Bay Area Book Festival. Photo: Courtesy artists

If you find yourself inexorably drawn to four guys making some uproarious music while you’re wandering around Civic Center during the Bay Area Book Festival this weekend, well, seizing the attention of passersby is a skill that John Brothers Piano Company has perfected.

The quartet will be ensconced on the corner of Allston and MLK from 2-4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday playing their wonderfully idiosyncratic blend of polyphonic jazz. While the group can often be found playing indoors these days at spots like the SFJAZZ Center, Great American Music Hall, the Fonda Theatre, and Regency Ballroom, the JBPC honed its attention-seizing act busking at BART stations.

Rather than hustling for gigs, several enterprising Cal grads who enjoyed making music together decided to join their buddy John Morgan playing on the street in 2011. “He figured out he could bring an upright piano to the BART station and make great money,” says Berkeley native Arlo Perlstein, a trumpeter who like almost of the original JBPC members doubles on piano.

Focusing on heavily foot-trafficked stations near Union Square, they quickly gained attention, including a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. They also started landing offers for gigs, like a year-long wee-hours Saturday morning stint at a San Francisco speakeasy. “It didn’t have a name, and eventually it got shut down by city,” Perlstein says. “But I’ve got to give the proprietor credit. He wanted that Prohibition sound, and instead of getting a DJ he found a band that could simulate that 1930s musical experience.”


The regular gig gave the band a chance to work out music, usually through the course of the night, improvising with riffs until a piece took shape. Much like when they were busking, the necessity of holding the attention of the listeners fueled their rhythmic invention. “The creation was in a performance setting with an audience there,” Perlstein says. “It needed to have that energetic quality.”

While there’s been some personnel changes over the years, the band still features three original members with Perlstein, John Thatcher Boomer on piano and clarinet, and Jimi Marks on drums and piano. Dustin Smurthwaite recently took over the bass chair, and while he doesn’t play piano he’s an accomplished trombonist and may add a third horn into the mix.

Part of what makes John Brothers Piano Company such engaging performers is the abrupt shifts in texture and energy between and during songs as the players switch instruments. Perlstein describes the choreography as “a happy accident” that evolved after John Morgan left the band early on. They tried out another pianist but quickly decided that everyone should have a hand on the piano chair.

“What was meant to be a place holder became the defining aspect of the band,” Perlstein says. “People really loved it. Everyone plays very differently from each other so you get this real variety. Usually the way we utilize the switching is so we can have both of the horns playing together or one after another.”

Over the past seven years John Brothers Piano Company has become a regular presence at Oakland and Berkeley gatherings produced by Heart of the Town Events (like the Bay Area Book Festival) . “We do eight street fairs and festivals in Oakland and Berkeley and I hire them as often as I can,” says Samee Roberts, president of Heart of the Town and managing director of the Book Festival. “People absolutely love them. They’re obviously supremely talented musicians but they still have this wonderful street performer energy. Every time we bring them into an event, crowds gather around. When we get feedback in our surveys, people always says bring back John Brothers.”

The only Berkeley-raised member of the ensemble, Perlstein attended Le Conte, Willard and graduated from Berkeley High in 2007. People often assume he played in the vaunted Berkeley High jazz band, but he followed his own path. Smitten with Afro-Cuban music as a teenager he studied at the Jazzschool with veteran Latin jazz bassist David Belove. At Cal he majored in philosophy.

“I didn’t study music,” he says. “I’m mostly self-taught. After college some friends I’d lived with figured we could make a living doing this thing we loved and that led to John Brothers. In hindsight I wish I had played in the Berkeley High band. All my friends who did came out such stellar musicians.”

While John Brothers Piano Company is the only act that’ll be playing on the streets during the Book Festival, there are several other music related events. The Berkeley Symphony and Bay Area Book Festival present the world premiere of four original works by composers Ursula Kwong-Brown, Aiyana Braun, Peter Shin, and Tristan Koster, interpreting musically the work of four poets Saturday 3:15-4:45 p.m. at the Florence Schwimley Little Theater. Readings by Genny Lim, Innosanto Nagara, and Rachel Richardson (on behalf of Brenda Hillman) will be followed by the premieres.

Also on Saturday, How the Songs Work: The Poetry of Bob Dylan features UC Berkeley professor Timothy Hampton in conversation with renowned cultural critic Greil Marcus, author of 2005’s Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. Ramona Naddaff moderates the session at The Marsh 1:30- 2:45 p.m. And San Francisco Chronicle pop culture critic Peter Hartlaub interviews the musician, singer, songwriter, producer Moby about his new memoir about Then It Fell Apart, 4:30- 5:45 p.m. at the San Francisco Chronicle Stage in the Park.