In Berkeley: Owen Chen’s cognitive jazz and Maqueque’s Cuban women

Guitarist and Cal grad Owen Chen plays Jupiter Friday. And get ready to dance at a Cuban new year’s eve party at the Freight, also in downtown Berkeley.

Guitarist Owen Chen (right), who graduated from Cal with a degree in computer and cognitive science, returns to town to play Jupiter on Friday with a trio featuring bassist Nick Panoutsos, left, and drummer Elé Howell. Photo: Courtesy Owen Chen

Majoring in computer science as an undergrad at Cal doesn’t usually leave much free time for hobbies but Owen Chen found a way to keep his hands on his guitar. With his interest in jazz expanding in conjunction with his classroom studies in coding and cognitive science, he discovered his musical calling with help from drummer Ted Moore, the director of the UC Jazz Ensembles since 2004.

“He was instrumental in encouraging me to keep developing it,” says Chen, who makes his Bay Area debut as a leader Friday at Jupiter with San Jose raised bassist Nick Panoutsos and San Francisco-reared drummer Elé Howell. “I really loved music, but it was on the side. He encouraged me to keep going, and he’s one of the reasons I moved to New York City.”

These days Chen is pursuing his Master’s Degree in jazz instrumental performance at New York University, which is where the San Diego native met his trio-mates. Panoutsos and Howell are a sought after rhythm section tandem who have already established themselves as impressive professionals. In August, they played a sensational set at San Jose Jazz’s Summer Fest with Elé’s father, the great tenor saxophonist Richard Howell, who brought the requisite ecstatic release to John Coltrane’s spiritually-charged suite A Love Supreme.

“Nick and Elé play with a lot of people, and they’re my favorite musicians to work with,” Chen says. “We’ve been playing together for the last year or so. At Jupiter we’re playing a bunch of standards, songs and jazz tunes. Elé loves playing Wayne Shorter pieces.”


Chen got his start on violin, and after nine years of classical studies he gravitated to the drums in his high school jazz band. At the same time he played guitar for fun, and the instrument became his focus after he started at Cal. In addition to playing with the UC Jazz Ensembles, Chen took a year-long class on free improvisation with Myra Melford, and studied at the California Jazz Conservatory with pianist Frank Martin and guitarist Steve Erquiaga. When he decided to change academic course for graduate school, his parents had his back.

“They’re very supportive,” Chen says. “A lot of reasons why Asian kids start music early is because their parents encourage them. They encouraged me to keep doing it and when I decided to apply to music school they knew I was an adult. It’s not that they’re not worried about me. They’re view is their job is done. And I do love tech. In the future I want to figure out if there’s something I can do in the intersection between music and technology.”

In the meantime, Chen is soaking up everything he can in New York. He’s studied with Adam Rogers, a brilliant guitarist recruited as a special guest by the SFJAZZ Collective for this season’s 50th anniversary celebration of the seminal Miles Davis fusion album In a Silent Way and Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand! He’s found another mentor in Peter Mazza, a widely esteemed New York player who’s held down Sunday nights at the Greenwich Village jazz spot Bar Next Door for almost two decades.

“Peter Mazza has his own thing, this the whole harmonic vocabulary down,” Chen says. “Adam Rogers is another top influence. I didn’t know him before I got to New York. He’s opened up a lot of directions for me. And Jonathan Kreisberg, who also plays every week at Bar Next Door, is crazy amazing.”

Glad to be back in Berkeley with two close confederates, Chen is hoping to become a regular presence on the Bay Area jazz scene.


Jane Bunnett’s Afro-Cuban Dance Party at the Freight

What better way to beat the cold than a quick trip to Cuba? Even better, Cuba is coming to Berkeley when Jane Bunnett and Maqueque play a New Year’s Eve dance party at the Freight. Bunnett, the great Canadian soprano saxophonist and flutist, has spent the past 25 years introducing brilliant young Cuban musicians to audiences outside their cloistered homeland.

A few years back Bunnett realized a new generation of women players were coming into their own, which led to the creation of Maqueque, a high-octane ensemble that’s already served as a launching pad for vocalist Daymé Arocena. The sextet’s latest lineup features another rapidly rising star, drummer/composer Yissy García, the daughter of Irakere’s founding percussionist Bernardo García. Pianist Dánae Olano, bassist/vocalist Celia Jiménez, and percussionist/vocalist Magdelys Savigne, and violinist/vocalist Elizabeth Rodriguez round out the Cuban contingent of the talent-packed band. Maqueque’s lead vocalist is Joanna Majoko, a Canadian singer of German and Zimbabwean descent. The evening opens with a set by Louie Romero Y Su Grupo Mazacote, a top Bay Area band led by timbales master Romero, who was at the center of the New York salsa action at Fania Records in the late 1960s recording with Héctor Lavoe, Willie Colón, Rubén Blades, and Celia Cruz.