Stroll through the Gourmet Ghetto just about any Saturday afternoon and you’re likely to hear Bob Kenmotsu’s soulful tenor saxophone. For the past seven years or so the longtime Berkeley resident has played with the veteran quartet that turns the Cheese Board into a hard-bop outpost just about every weekend.
A player with an international profile, Kenmotsu has recorded with some of the most revered figures in jazz, including guitarist Pat Martino and Hammond B-3 organist Brother Jack McDuff. On Sunday afternoon he celebrates the release of his new album Trio (Rodoken Music) at the Back Room, an impressively fluent session that alternates between sumptuous standards (“Stardust” and Jule Styne’s “Time After Time”), jazz classics (Oscar Pettiford’s “Tricotism” and Miles Davis’s “So What”), and his melodically inviting originals.
While the album is a stripped down trio session designed to give him maximum harmonic independence, Kenmotsu is playing with a traditional rhythm section on Sunday with pianist David Udolf, bassist Adam Gay, and drummer Tony Johnson. It’s not a working band, but the players share many ties.
“I work with Adam a lot, usually playing in his band,” Kenmotsu says. “And Tony calls me for some of his gigs. Between the two of them we have a large repertoire. David Udolf I haven’t played with as much, but the last time was a house party with Akira Tana and vocalist Kenny Washington and it was great, and I wanted to work with him again.”
Unassuming and generally uninterested in blowing his own horn, Kenmotsu can often be seen carrying his tenor case in the North Berkeley BART Station. Most Cheese Board customers have little idea that the band performing every Saturday (except the first weekend of the month) is made up of players with sterling resumes.
East Bay-raised drummer Ron Marabuto, a Cal grad who spent a decade in New York City accompanying jazz legends such as Pepper Adams, Tommy Flanagan and Roland Hanna, started on the gig about 12 years ago with pianist Betty Shaw. Bassist Robb Fisher, who earned a Grammy Award with Latin jazz great Cal Tjader, came on next. When word came down that Shaw should expand her trio to a quartet, she planned to try out a roster of saxophonists, starting with Kenmotsu.
“He did it once and that was it,” says Marabuto, who also plays with Kenmotsu and bassist Adam Gay in pianist Nick Culp’s quartet most Fridays at Original Pattern Brewing Company on Jack London Square. “I had known Bob since the early 1980s when we met in New York. He was the logical choice, nice guy, knows a million tunes, likes to play. Betty asked me to call some people and she’ll pick who she likes.”
Albany-based pianist Keith Saunders was the last musician to join the Cheese Board quartet, taking over in early 2018 from the great Mark Levine (who had replaced Shaw). He also first met Kenmotsu in New York City, where they were both young players making their way on the scene in the mid-1980s. Saunders went on to work with heavyweights like Hank Crawford, Mickey Roker, Ralph LaLama, and Frank Wess, while leading the NY Hard Bop Quintet for much of the 1990s. Since relocating to the Bay Area about a decade ago he’s become a ubiquitous presence on the Bay Area scene.
Saunders reconnected with Kenmotsu shortly after settling in the East Bay, and he’s found the Saturday Cheese Board gig supremely rewarding. “Bob’s got his own sound, which is precious, what we all strive for,” Saunders says. “He sounds like a finished musician. He plays with fire and funk and bluesyness and he’s got complete command of the horn. He knows about the history and has studied a great deal. On top of all that he’s a great composer. His tunes are very distinctive, melodic and earthy.”
Born and raised in Stockton, Kenmotsu started on clarinet and switched to alto saxophone in high school. By the time he graduated he was deeply interested in jazz and enrolled in San Jose State. The South Bay scene centered on Garden City, where the late pianist Smith Dobson was a longtime presence. “He was a big influence, and very encouraging,” Kenmotsu says. In the late 1970s the East Bay scene boasted several lively jam sessions that Kenmotsu frequented. Like so many other ambitious young jazz musicians, there was only one destination. “I was going to go to New York for sure,” he says.
He spent several years paying dues on the Gotham scene, starting with a steady gig “in an amusement park marching band,” he recalls. “It got me out there, meeting other musicians. Jazz gigs came later after a lot of jam sessions and getting to know other players.”
A spot in the band backing vocalist Ruth Brown, whose 1950s R&B hits established Atlantic Records as “the house that Ruth Built,” was something of a breakthrough for Kenmotsu, as was joining the combo of soul jazz organ master Brother Jack McDuff, “a great experience for me,” he says. “I love blues and that kind of soulful funky jazz.”
He’d started doing some work for the Japanese label King Records in the early 1990s, which gave him the chance to record with McDuff and guitar great Pat Martino on the 1994 album Bronx Tale. Martino was reestablishing himself after suffering an aneurysm in 1980 that wiped his memory. He’d spent many years teaching himself to play again listening to his old records, and was just starting to record regularly again. They weren’t acquainted when Kenmotsu called him up cold to ask if he’d be interested in making an album, and was pleasantly surprised when Martino agreed. Clearly impressed by the saxophonist, he called him a few months later to make the album Nightwings (Muse), an excellent quintet session with pianist Jim Ridl, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Bill Stewart.
The same year he received a grant from the U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Fellowship Program that funded a long sojourn to Japan. Joined by his wife and their two young kids, Kenmotsu spent his time playing and studying music. By the time the grant ended “I had established myself pretty well on the scene, so we stayed there for two more years,” he says. “Because I made friends and musical partners, I’m able to go back and tour at the end of the summer every year.”
Looking for a more family-friendly locale to raise the kids, Kenmotsu ended up settling in Berkeley in 1997. With the dot com boom taking off, he figured he’d find a day job for financial security (he’s the longtime director of information technology/senior database administrator for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts). His kids went through the Berkeley public schools, from Jefferson to King to Berkeley High.
He’d maintained ties to the Bay Area scene throughout his years in New York and Japan, which made the move back to the Bay Area much easier. He released his first album, 1992’s The Spark, on Asian Improv, the Bay Area label founded by pianist Jon Jang and tenor saxophonist Francis Wong. They’d played a key role in organizing activist Asian-American musicians fighting against racism and police violence and for reparations for Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. Many of the artists associated with Asian Improv combined traditional Asian instruments and styles with jazz.
As a Sansei, Kenmotsu respected their political commitment, but didn’t find himself drawn to traditional Japanese music. “One of the things I discovered living in Japan is how American I am,” he says. “I’m third generation born in America. I just feel very comfortable in the environment of soulful, swinging jazz. I don’t know why, but I do. That’s the sound I’m coming out of.”