John Ettinger, one of the East Bay’s best kept musical secrets, plays Saturday at the Berkeley Art Festival. Photo: Sylvia Ettinger
John Ettinger, one of the East Bay’s best kept musical secrets, plays Saturday at the Berkeley Art Festival. Photo: Sylvia Ettinger

Despite releasing three acclaimed CDs over the past decade featuring some of jazz’s most accomplished improvisers, John Ettinger is one of the East Bay’s best kept musical secrets. The El Cerrito violinist gained a good deal of attention in 2006 with “Kissinger In Space,” an album as strange, wondrous and amusing as its title. He’s mostly been out of sight since the release of his last CD, 2008’s beauteous “Inquatica” with Pete Forbes on drums, piano, and banjo, a multi-tracked improvisational duo session marked by his judicious use of space and a haunting version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.”

Ettinger presents a program of music drawn from his three albums for the first time Saturday at the Berkeley Art Festival space on University Avenue with a quintet featuring bassist Todd Sickafoose, drummer Lorca Hart, guitarist John Preuss and tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby. He never intended to keep his music on the down low, but with a day job at Ifshin Violins and a growing family, Ettinger put hustling gigs on the back burner.

“There just hasn’t been time to do the phone work and booking,” says Ettinger, who also performs with Preuss, Sickafoose and guitarist Myles Boisen in the Miniwatt String Quartet at San Francisco’s Red Poppy Art House on Nov. 24. “Recording seemed like a more controllable way to get things done, without crazy late hours.”

Ettinger decided to seize the moment for a belated CD release gig when he saw that Malaby, an old friend from their days at Arizona State in the mid-1980s, was scheduled for a spate of West Coast performances, including last Saturday’s San Francisco Jazz Festival show with his celebrated trio Tamarindo. A ubiquitous presence on the New York jazz scene’s exploratory frontier, the thick-toned saxophonist is a featured soloist in several stellar ensembles, including Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra and the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

Ettinger grew up in Arizona and moved to the Bay Area in the early 1990s. Over the years he’s played in chamber music ensembles and symphony orchestras, theatrical settings and free improv jazz. He gained the most visibility in the 1990s jazz/rock combo he led with Preuss, Herlo Thrumbo, which occasionally shared the bill with T.J. Kirk, the popular three-guitar-and-drums quartet powered by Scott Amendola.

After playing several gigs with the Scott Amendola Band, Ettinger recruited Amendola, Sickafoose and pianist Art Hirahara, who all performed together in an exquisite trio, for his impressive debut album, 2003’s “Autumn Rain.” The project put him at the forefront of a new generation of string players, and he’s continued to develop his singular sound.

“I tried not to pin it down stylistically,” Ettinger says. “I knew I wanted to play with a rhythm section, and I came up with melodies and forms and strategies. It’s very intuitive. I don’t think all that hard about it.”

Almost a decade after its release the music on “Autumn Rain” is getting a proper premiere. Let’s hope there are more showers in store.

With his huge hands and formidable stature — he stands in the neighborhood of six-four — Chucho Valdés cuts an imposing figure away from the bandstand. But it’s when he’s seated at the piano that Valdes scares the daylights out of his fellow musicians.

It’s not so much his overwhelming technical prowess, though his command of the piano is nothing short of astonishing. Rather, what makes the Cuban pianist so unnerving is the seeming ease with which he embraces the musical heritage of three continents. While completely capable of evoking jazz masters such as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner, and fully conversant with the European classical canon, he treats the piano like a finely calibrated drum, summoning the rhythmic and spiritual riches of Africa.

“The proliferation of rhythms in Cuba wasn’t a casual thing,” says Valdés, who performs Wednesday at Zellerbach for Cal Performances, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. “It’s the largest island in the Caribbean and the Spaniards thought there was going to be a lot of gold there and they brought more slaves from different regions of Africa than to any other place. They came from Congo and Nigeria with their culture and rhythms, the Bantu and the Dahomey, so a rich cultural and rhythmic world accumulated, a culture that probably doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. And not just because of Africa, the Spaniards had the Arab and Moorish influence too.”

Chucho Valdés: playing Zellerbach on Wednesday

Valdes has been at the forefront of the movement weaving together Old and New World musical styles for more than three decades, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone being born into a situation more conducive to developing such a visionary approach. His father, the celebrated pianist and pre-revolutationary Havana bandleader Bebo Valdés, started him on piano lessons at the age of three and by grade school he was studying at a conservatory. Valdes assembled his own band at 16, and a few years later began playing piano in his father’s ground breaking orchestra, a group that often accompanied American jazz musicians who were visiting the island.

While Cuba was cut off from direct contact with the American jazz scene after the communist takeover, Valdés managed to monitor the latest developments and was enthralled with the ground breaking styles of pianists McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans. When he founded Irakere in 1973, an unprecedented group that included reed master Paquito D’Rivera and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval (who both later defected to the U.S.), he created an utterly new sound by drawing on elements of jazz, rock, funk, European classical music and percussion usually used in sacred Afro-Cuban rituals. The music was revolutionary, but Cuba’s revolutionary government didn’t smile on the endeavor.

“In the beginning it was very difficult because they called jazz the music of the imperialists, and we had to deal with that for years,” trumpeter Arturo Sandoval said in a 1993 interview. “In the beginning of Irakere, they didn’t let us use the cymbals with drums because they said a drum with cymbals meant jazz, and we weren’t allowed to play jazz.”

Eventually the government backed off, and Irakere became the first post-revolutionary band to sign a contract with an American record label, winning a Grammy for its 1978 release. Touring with Irakere made Valdés an international figure, and for decades he was best known in the States for his role as the band’s founder and leading composer. As a solo performer, the breakthrough in the U.S. came in 1997, when he toured widely with trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s group Crisol. The exposure led to Valdés signing a contract with EMI/Canada, which resulted in his excellent 1998 album “Bele Bele en La Habana.”

Always on the lookout for fresh talent, Valdés assembled his latest band by scouting for outstanding alumni from Cuba’s National School of the Arts. The quintet he brings to California features bassist Angel Perellada, Dreisser Bombalé on bata drums and vocals, percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles, and drummer Rodney Barreto. While Valdés has spent more than half of his life charting the confluence of jazz and Cuban music, he feels he’s only scratched the surface.

“What has been explored between jazz and Afro-Caribbean music is very small,” Valdés says, “compared to what there is to be explored.”

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. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

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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....