Musician, and Berkeley High math teacher, Dan Plonsey, whose compositions inspired New Monsters

Most musicians would be thrilled if a distinguished colleague created a band dedicated to interpreting their compositions. Dan Plonsey, however, isn’t your average musician. He’s not exactly complaining about New Monsters, the powerhouse jazz quintet launched last year by bassist Steve Horowitz and drummer Jim Bove. But as befitting a man who found a kindred spirit in dyspeptic graphic novelist (and jazz critic) Harvey Pekar, Plonsey seems a little bemused by the ensemble, even though he’s a charter member.

Riding a wave of glowing reviews for its eponymous album on the Los Angeles label Posi-Tone, New Monsters performs Saturday at the Jazzschool on Addison in downtown Berkeley (and Sept. 23 at San Francisco’s Bird & Beckett bookstore). With pianist Scott Looney, ROVA saxophonist Steve Adams (and now drummer John Hanes), the band features the instrumentation of a hard-bop quintet, though it’s far more volatile, playing loose and limber arrangements of tunes gleaned from an expansive series of untitled pieces that Plonsey wrote for his large ensemble Daniel Popsicle. Where Plonsey tends to avoid jazz conventions, instead creating music full of jump cuts, digressive humor and through-composed themes, Horowitz’s New Monsters pulls the music firmly into jazz territory, moving unpredictably from capering grooves to free form improvisation. 

“It’s kind of weird,” says Plonsey, who has taught mathematics at Berkeley High since the mid aughts. “Left to my own devices I’d start pushing it back until it sounded like my own band again. With a bass and drums and piano rhythm section, I want to tell them not to do that jazz thing. I don’t like jazz that much. But it sounds pretty good.”

The seeds for the band were sown shortly after Horowitz returned to the Bay Area in 2010 after a decade-long stint in New York City. The Berkeley High grad (class of 1982) quickly started performing with Daniel Popsicle, rejoining forces with Plonsey, a long-time creative compatriot dating back to the early 1990s. A genial musical provocateur, Plonsey is a dauntingly prolific composer who was in the midst of creating a huge body of New Monster tunes. Horowitz and Bove started reconfiguring them and recruited an improvisational A-Team to explore Plonsey’s consistently engaging material.

“We’ve done a bunch of projects over the years and I’ve always loved Dan’s music,” says Horowitz, a producer and prolific composer himself who has written music for film, television, video games and other interactive media. “When I started playing in Daniel Popsicle I thought his new tunes would make awesome small group arrangements. I was just able to really hear them in a different way than Dan was hearing them.”

Born and raised in Cleveland, Plonsey earned a BA in math and music from Yale University and an MA in composition from Mills College in 1988. He’s been a potent creative catalyst on the Bay Area scene ever since, collaborating with many of the region’s most vivid improvisers. While his primary influences are all avant garde jazz pioneers, he inhabits an intermediate zone where jazz, theater and new music all cross-fertilize each other.

What sets Plonsey’s music apart from so many of his new music peers is his gift for combining antic, occasionally self-lacerating humor with fundamental existential themes, all set to insistently tuneful music. Hilarious and deadly serious, he’s a painstaking composer who embraces the ridiculous and the sublime.

His extended works are mostly through composed, but he encourages musicians to add notes and short phrases where they see fit. One thread running through all his projects is an almost desperate search for community, a soul-deep yearning for a world in which music and art are woven into the social fabric. It’s a philosophy that starts at home in El Cerrito. He often incorporates his family, vocalist/dancer Mantra Ben-Ya’akova Plonsey and sons Cleveland and Mischa, into his work, like his opera “Leave Me Alone!” with a libretto by underground comic legend Harvey Pekar, and the madcap multimedia production commissioned by the Bay Area’s Jewish Music Festival, “Dan Plonsey’s Bar Mitzvah.”

Inspired by Sun Ra and Anthony Braxton, singular self-invented composers and bandleaders who created vividly expansive musical worlds, Plonsey seems to runneth over with music. “Sun Ra said the creator demands we make one thing every day, but you’re allowed to make extra things and save up,” says Plonsey, who resembles an experimental musician direct from central casting, with a high forehead crowned by tufts of perpetually tussled mad-scientist hair.

It’s not just that Plonsey is prolific. Among the hundreds of pieces he’s written for ensembles of every size, he’s received commissions from Bang on a Can People, the Berkeley Symphony, and New Music Works in Santa Cruz, though the antic list of works in progress detailed on his characteristically entertaining website is even more impressive (Item 6 reads “21 Marches for Space Conqueror and Idle Tourist: or whatever I called it. Written for Santa Cruz New Music Works Avant Garden Party. Live recording exists and has some charm.  Release as is? Not all 21 pieces exist; it’s more like 18 — is this a problem?”)

In anything his output has accelerated over the past two years, which he credits to a $50,000 fellowship from the independent arts funder United States Artists (“A poor man’s MacArthur,” Plonsey says). The windfall has allowed him to teach part time and focus on checking off some of the two-dozen projects on that in-progress list, while also writing sheaves of new music. With New Monsters, his music is finding a whole new audience.

“Secretly, Dan wants to be known as a jazz musician,” Horowitz says. “We felt like we were dragging him kicking and screaming into this, but it’s paid off musically and otherwise. We’ve got a whole tour with a bunch of dates down in Southern California in November. People who like straight ahead jazz say it’s just inside enough. And for people who like outside jazz, there’s plenty of stuff to grab on to.”

New Monsters performs Saturday, September 15, at Berkeley’s JazzSchool, 2087 Addison Street. Their two sets start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 general admission, $12 seniors and students. 

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....