Rhonda Benin knows that the music biz is unforgiving and that recovering visibility after four months off the scene can easily take twice as long. The Oakland vocalist doesn’t regret her summer-long sojourn in China, where she held down a nightly gig in Hangzhou singing soul, blues and jazz. But she knew that getting back into the groove at home might take some doing, which is why she is producing Wednesday, Mar. 27’s Freight & Salvage vocal extravaganza “Just Like A Woman,” featuring herself, Terrie Odabi, Kellye Gray and Paula Harris, all backed by pianist Tammy Hall’s Lillian Armstrong Tribute Band.
“Working six nights a week steady like that really took me to another level and brought up my live show,” Benin says. “It’s unfortunate that so many black women have got to go out of the country to work. I got offered another contract, but I wanted to come home. I was thinking ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ and that I better come up with something clever. I figured I’d pitch it to Freight & Salvage because they seem to be really open to a diverse array of music.”
As a singer versed in a vast continuum of African-American musical forms, Benin is practically a festival unto herself. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she worked widely as a session musician, singing background vocals on more than 100 albums. A tour with Maria Muldaur brought her to the Bay Area in 1989 and she decided to stay. Benin credits her experience as a founding member of Linda Tillery’s Cultural Heritage Choir with grounding her in the essential roots of African-American music, from cake walks, field shouts and work songs through spirituals, country blues, and various Caribbean traditions.
“That group taught me to be a musician,” Benin says. “Linda taught me to have integrity with my band, how to be a leader, what to perform. She pushed me out of my R&B life into jazz and folk and Latin and reggae, and changed my whole scope.”
A tireless champion in the fight for the recognition of black music’s centrality to American (and international) culture, Benin wages the struggle as an educator, artist and engaged citizen. Launching her own band, she created Soulful Strut, a vehicle for exploring her love of the great jazz and soul stars of the 1950s and ’60s, “somewhere between R&B and jazz, closer to Dinah Washington than to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan,” she says.
Like many of the best singers in the Bay Area, such as Kim Nalley, Denise Perrier and Frankye Kelly, Benin built Soulful Strut around Tammy Hall, and it’s no surprise that she called on the conservatory-trained jazz pianist for “Just Like A Woman.” Conceived as a celebration of Women’s History Month, Wednesday’s concert is designed to showcase each performer’s particular gifts, while focusing on songs either written by female composers or indelibly linked to women performers. The antithesis of a diva, Benin digs the idea of sharing the spotlight with her equally formidable peers.
Steeped in jazz, gospel and soul, Oakland-raised Terrie Odabi has earned a devoted following through her work with the Medicine Ball Band. Dallas-native Gray is a stylistically expansive jazz vocalist who performed widely in the Bay Area in the 1990s, though these days she’s based in Austin (she released an impressive 2007 album “Live at the Jazzschool” with the great Venezuelan pianist Otmaro Ruiz, Cuban drummer Jimmy Branly and LA bassist Hamilton Price). Rounding out the foursome is the versatile Bay Area blues belter Paula Harris, a regular at Biscuits & Blues who also knows her way around the jazz canon.
“Paula is popular in the South Bay,” Benin says. “She’s got a meaty voice, and really digs in. I know Kellye Gray from when I first started singing with Mal Sharpe. Nothing stops her. And Terrie is very popular on the East Bay scene. I was being strategic, mixing it up racially and age wise. The bottom line is they’re all just really good singers.”
Benin is also using the concert to showcase some rising young artists who have studied with her, including vocalist/saxophonist Larrolyn Parms-Ford, vocalist and Albany High senior Lizzy Asarnow, and 16-year-old Hayward vocalist Samara Wright. They’ll perform as part of the first set along with each of the featured singers. For the second set, the four women perform two songs each and close the show with an all-hands-on deck finale.
When it comes to accompaniment, the singers couldn’t be in better hands. Taking the name of the under appreciated jazz matriarch Lillian Armstrong, an accomplished pianist, composer and savvy career guide for her husband Louis Armstrong during his breakthrough years in the 1920s, the band features the masterly blues bassist Ruth Davies, drummer Ruth Price, and alto saxophonist Sonya Jason.
A highly lyrical pianist with a deep love for Brazilian music, Anne Sajdera performs tonight, Thursday, Mar. 21, at a relatively new venue, the Garden Gate Creativity Center, 2911 Claremont Ave., with a superlative quartet equally committed to Brazilian music featuring bassist Scott Thompson, drummer Phil Thompson and reed expert Harvey Wainapel.
Irish-born singer Melanie O’Reilly, a Berkeley resident with a singular sound blending jazz and her Celtic roots, celebrates the release of her new CD Ceol Ceantair at Freight & Salvage on Friday, Mar. 22 with a cast of heavy hitters, including pianist Frank Martin, whose credits include recordings with Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Ray Charles, James Taylor and Sting, and Berkeley saxophonist George Brooks, a long-time collaborator with Terry Riley, Zakir Hussain, and Larry Coryell.
Clarinetist/composer Beth Custer and didgeridoo explorer Stephen Kent are reviving their fascinating ensemble Trance Mission as a trio with Peter Valsamis on drums, percussion and electronics at the Subterranean Arthouse, 2179 Bancroft Way, on Sunday, Mar. 24. A prolific part of the Bay Area scene in the 1990s, the world ambient band has been dormant for the past decade, while Custer and Kent have pursued numerous rewarding bands and projects.
Berkeley High’s award-winning jazz bands perform two shows Tuesday, Mar. 26 at Yoshi’s Oakland, an annual fundraiser that reliably packs the house. Both shows will feature the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble, the flagship orchestra that has served as a proving ground for more than a dozen celebrated jazz artists. One of the program’s smaller combos, made up of promising students looking to make their own mark, share the stage at each show.
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.