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Composer John Schott. Photo: Michael Zelner

Berkeley guitarist John Schott doesn’t always write for large string ensembles, but when he does he’s aiming to capture the capabilities of a new generation of adventurous musicians.

An erudite composer with catholic taste who’s equally at home playing country blues, funk or free jazz, Schott premieres his latest project, the Creative String Orchestra, Friday, Mar. 29 at the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space, 2133 University Avenue. The startlingly talented ensemble includes violinist Rachel Durling, violist Tara Flandreau, cellist Theresa Wong, and bassist Kim Cass.

“These large ensemble projects are things that have appeared at several year cycles,” says Schott, who also performs with his trio at North Oakland’s Actual Café on April 7, a long-running monthly gig. “It has to happen at a moment when the scene is conducive to this, and I think there’s a lot happening in the string world vis-à-vis jazz and improvisation these days. There are these highly trained string players who are able to speak fluently in multiple musical languages.” 

As a composer, Schott aims to explore these polyglot tendencies with four pieces employing an array of scenarios, from a fully notated score to a Count Basie-style head arrangement, which depends upon an ensemble’s ability to collaboratively extemporize on a theme, often based on the blues.

“That’s one august lineage of creative music orchestration, one that requires musicians to be dynamically engaged,” Schott says. “Another piece is much more notated, and requires an ensemble precision that can only be achieved with a conductor. I like being able to have four different musical worlds, and four different ways of thinking about how a group interacts.”

The last time Schott convened a large string ensemble was in the mid-1990s, when the Bay Area scene bristled with brilliant young string players. Among the musicians featured that night at Yoshi’s playing the music of clarinetist Ben Goldberg were violinists Jenny Scheinman and Carla Kihlstedt, cellist Matt Brubeck, and bassist Trevor Dunn, all of whom subsequently departed for points east.

Thankfully we haven’t lost all our string explorers. Dina Maccabee, who seems to be everywhere on the Bay Area scene these days, was only 18 that night when she made her performance debut, but she wasn’t available for Friday’s show. Tara Flandreau is the only carryover from the earlier lineup.

Friday’s opening set features a quartet with Schott, bassist Kim Cass, and drummer Jordan Glenn (who also accompanies the string ensemble) led by 17-year-old guitarist Jasper Hussong, a junior at Berkeley High. A guitar student of Schott’s for the last three years, Hussong is also a highly accomplished cellist who will perform as part of Schott’s Creative String Orchestra

“He’s a fearless improviser with a vast harmonic imagination, a jazz guitarist of fire and wisdom far beyond his years,” Schott says. “On the cello he’s involved with Bartók, Beethoven and Bach, a real prodigy. On both instruments he’s got a lot to say. He’s someone I really enjoy playing music with, which would be true if he was 75.”

Hussong has devised a fascinating program divided between original tunes and his arrangements of lyrically charged standards and jazz compositions such as pianist Bill Evans’ “Gloria’s Steps,” pianist Lennie Tristano’s “317 East 32nd Street,” Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean,” and Charlie Haden’s ballad “Being Human” from the obscure 1977 Ornette Coleman album Soapsuds, Soapsuds.

His originals include “The Jester,” a blues set to an odd rhythm; “Seeds of Dreams,” a gospel-tinged piece inspired by Louis Armstrong; and the Tristano-influenced “Oppenheimer’s Ailment.”  The concert not only mark’s Hussong’s debut as a bandleader, it brings together his two musical worlds for the first time.

“Up until very recently they’ve been pretty separate,” he says. “I’m really trying to learn cello by the route that everyone has to, the pedagogy of centuries. That hasn’t met up quite yet with the guitar, but I seem to be on a path that’s getting there. John’s music is kind of at that cross point.”

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Schott drawing music in the air with a light pen.

It’s not surprising to find out that Schott, a Seattle native, grew up in a highly creative musical environment. While the 1980s Seattle scene earned international attention as the incubator of the punk-influenced grunge movement, there was also a high concentration of volatile improvisers. By the time he finished high school, Schott was enmeshed with drummers Jim Black, Aaron Alexander and Mike Sarin, saxophonist Chris Speed and guitarist Brad Shepik, all of whom are vital members of the New York jazz scene. “There was a lot of aggressive underground music making,” Schott says.

He graduated from Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts with a degree in composition after studying with Gary Peacock and Jerry Granelli, and was drawn to the Bay Area by the San Francisco Symphony’s extensive programming around the 80th birthday of composer Elliot Carter (and his desire to study with the Belgian pianist Jeanne Stark-Iochmans).

The first group he formed in the Bay Area was Planet Good, and he made his recording debut as a leader with In These Great Times for John Zorn’s Radical Jewish Culture series, a project that set texts by Kafka, Karl Kraus, and Jacob Glatshteyn to Schott’s 12-tone inspired compositions.

Living in Berkeley with his wife Naomi Seidman, a professor of Jewish studies at the Graduate Theological Union, and their son Ezra, Schott mostly supports himself by teaching music. In many ways, Friday’s show serves as a rare opportunity for uniting Schott’s disparate musical lives as an educator, composer, improviser, and underground creative catalyst eager to faciliate connections between artists.

“That’s another reason for the string orchestra,” he says. “It’s a crossroads where I might be able to bring together a lot of players from disparate backgrounds, like a wonderful dinner party where you want these friends you’re fond of to meet these other friends.”

The True Life Trio, which features fiddler Leslie Bonnett, guitarist Briget Boyle and bassist Juliana Graffagna (with all three women on vocals and percussion), brings an expansive repertoire of Eastern European and Appalachian songs to Le Bateau Ivre, 2629 Telegraph Ave., on April 3.

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.

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....