The Berkeley Public Library might seem like unpromising territory to develop a thriving practice as a jazz trombonist, concert presenter, and all-around East Bay mover and shaker, but Pat Mullan is an expert at creating spaces for the culture she loves. She spent a quarter century ensconced at the downtown branch, where she found numerous ways to bring jazz into the stacks. But since retiring seven years ago, Mullan has poured her energy into the hard swinging 19-piece Junius Courtney Big Band, which performs a program focusing on the music of Thelonious Monk tonight at Yoshi’s with powerhouse guest vocalist Zoe Ellis (Berkeley High class of ‘88). On Friday, Mullan brings her unusual trombone quartet Trombonga to the Westside Café on Ninth Street.
When she first started playing with the Courtney Big Band in the early 1980s the ensemble had faded from view after decades as an East Bay institution under the leadership of its namesake New Orleans-born Berkeley-based trumpeter. She quickly arranged for the band to perform at the library, and started calling around for other gigs. Her dogged efforts have kept the ensemble together, working regularly with biannual showcase concerts at Yoshi’s.
Though Mullan is a relative latecomer to the trombone, she’s performed with some of the region’s finest jazz artists, including pianist Bill Bell, the Montclair Women’s Big Band, trombonist Angela Wellman’s Count Basie Tribute Orchestra, and trumpeter Warren Gale’s Joe Henderson Memorial Orchestra. “He had all Joe’s big band charts,” Mullan says. “Both Warren and Angela’s band were completely absorbing with all that original material.”
The quest for original material is part of the intrinsic fun of leading Trombonga, a project launched in the late 1990s when Yoshi’s hired Mullan to assemble a band for a New Year’s Day event. In recent years the quartet has appeared widely, performing at Oakland’s Art Murmur, Mrs. Dalloway’s, Cafffe Trieste, and Books Inc. “For a while we were the house trombone quartet of Kensington, playing the library, the farmer’s market and the Arlington Café,” says Mullan, whose wry, self-mocking sense of humor is typically trombonian (science is still debating whether the horn attracts the slyly ironic or infuses practitioners with a sense of the ridiculous).
Numerous players have participated in Trombonga since Mullan created the combo, but the current line up is the most stable yet, featuring Junius Courtney Big Band’s Curtiss Mays, David Hemphill, and Justin Mar on bass trombone. Mullan, Rhode Island native who moved to Berkeley in 1977, continues to add to the band’s book, which she’s had to assemble by hook and crook as almost no one sets out to write for trombone quartet.
Mullan has contributed several pieces, like a medley of themes from the 1966 film Alfie, while various musicians have added arrangements of tunes by Stevie Wonder, Count Basie, George Gershwin, Miles Davis, and the Oliver Nelson standard “Stolen Moments.” She likes to tell listeners a little bit about each piece, both out of a desire to connect with audiences (“I don’t know if being loquacious is a crazy Irish thing,” Mullan says), and out of physical necessity as playing without any accompaniment is demanding even for trombonists with the most galvanized chops.
She was first inspired to create a trombone quartet after hearing an ensemble called Prisma at an International Trombone Festival. An all-women trombone quartet playing classical left Mullan “smitten. They didn’t just have a tremendous sound, they had a sense of theater. For me, that sound of four trombones is like the first time I had gumbo. I couldn’t get enough of in me. Melba Liston also used four trombones on her album, which is such a killer.”
It was through Liston that I first met Mullan some two decades ago in Los Angeles, where I had befriended the great trombonist/arranger and spent many an afternoon hanging out with her to hear about her days touring with Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones, and writing for Randy Weston, Johnny Griffin, Milt Jackson, and other jazz legends. Mullan had already interviewed Liston for a KPFA feature, and was down visiting when Liston called me and said to come on over because “Pat Mullan is here, and she knows more about me than I do.”
A few years later, she coaxed Liston up to Berkeley as the guest of honor at a four-day Year of the Trombone Jazz Festival at the library. After moving up to Berkeley in 1996, I looked Mullan up, and soon started covering the events she produced at the downtown library, from jazz festivals to one-off concerts featuring masters such as Rebeca Mauleón, Jessica Williams, John Schott, Tammy Hall, Dee Spencer, Wayne Wallace, and Julian Priester (yes, she’s got a sweet spot for trombonists).
“I was adamant that everyone get paid,” Mullan says. “Not exorbitantly, but enough to show a level of respect. We also did stuff around architecture, gardening, painting. There’s still a little gallery. And we did music besides jazz too, a cappella stuff, Renaissance music. Some of my coworkers never got what was going on in the reading room. But others got it. We have a beautiful room and good sound system, and we were bringing folks in. Make it noisy in the library! But it takes a lot of work, and it needs support for the upper echelons. That’s not happening a whole lot now.”
The Dynamic Miss Faye Carol, an exceptional jazz and blues singer dedicated to passing on the tradition, presents the Getdown Glitteratti at Berkeley’s Black Repertory Theater on Sunday, 5 p.m., a showcase for 10 former students, including the versatile Trisha Gold.
Blue Cranes, a beautifully calibrated quintet from Portland, Ore., plays the Berkeley Arts Festival space Sunday. The band is on a national tour celebrating the release of a coolly evocative new album Swim (Cuneiform), a project produced by Nate Query of The Decemberists. Featuring tenor saxophonist Joe Cunningham, altoist Reed Wallsmith, bassist Keith Brush, drummer Ji Tanzer and Rebecca Sanborn on keyboards, the ensemble has honed a melodically driven sound with volatile undercurrents that are often sensed more than heard. Blue Cranes play the second set on a double bill with the free electro-acoustic improvisational trio Are You Fish featuring Bay Area saxophone stalwart Phillip Greenlief, LA electric bassist Steuart Liebig, and percussionist Dax Compise.
Guitarist Will Bernard is spending some time back home after several years in Brooklyn and performs Jun 12 at Jupiter with Berkeley Hammond B-3 are Wil Blades and drummer Brandon Etzler. Part of the first generation of stellar musicians who came out of Phil Hardymon’s Berkeley High jazz program in the late 1970s, Bernard is a player steeped in funk who has collaborated an fascinating array of acts, from seminal soul jazz artists such as Idris Muhammad and Dr. Lonnie Smith to Tom Waits, Zigaboo Modeliste and the roots reggae band Groundation.
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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