One of the best parts of being a musician, it’s always seemed to me, is the possibility of communing with players from other lands. Like a cultural passport with no expiration date, musical curiosity can provide access to far-flung fellow artists, their sounds and traditions. But occasionally a musician isn’t content with simply visiting another realm. For complex reasons they often can’t fully articulate, some players are moved to plunge headfirst into another culture, not in an effort to lose themselves, but to find something that resonates emotionally, intellectually, and even spiritually.
This phenomenon can be seen in action up and down Telegraph on Saturday with the 10th Annual Berkeley World Music Festival, which features a global array of styles, such as flutist Jeff Whittier, a master instrument maker and devotee of Hindustani classical music, and bassist Lisa Mezzacappa’s Afro-Caribbean-steeped Les Gwan Jupons. But two brilliant examples of artists who have forged musical identities through overseas exploration are on view elsewhere this week, with Berkeley saxophonist George Brooks’ Elements trio performing tonight at Freight & Salvage, and Oakland reed expert Harvey Wainapel playing the Hillside Club with his quintet Friday.
While many jazz musicians are enamored with Brazil’s treasure trove of songs and rhythms, very few have delved as deeply as Wainapel, who has spent several months out of each year since 2000 traveling around the vast country connecting with an ever-increasing web of musical compatriots. His latest album, Amigos Brasileiros, features a cross section of the Brazilian artists he’s befriended, and showcases his ravishing clarinet work (he’s also a masterly tenor, alto and soprano saxophonist).
In recent years Wainapel’s Bay Area gigs are usually Brazilian settings, but Friday’s Hillside Club concert is more of a jazz date, with pianist Adam Shulman, trumpeter Mike Olmos, bassist Peter Barshay and drummer Jason Lewis “though of course we’ll play some Brazilian music,” Wainapel says. “I can’t stay away from it. It’s a great rhythm section, and Mike is a very strong improviser. I can play standards all night and love that, but on my gigs I like to present things that I think should be standards. So if I do a Wayne Shorter or Oliver Nelson piece, it’s not going to be a tune you’ve heard a lot.”
A Berklee graduate who had toured with tenor saxophone star Joe Lovano and piano great Kenny Barron, Wainapel was already a top tier straight-ahead jazz player before he started making his annual pilgrimages to Brazil. He traces his obsession back to the late 1970s, when he was newly arrived in New York City playing in a band led by Brazilian drummer Duduka da Fonseca. The band’s Rio de Janeiro-born pianist was another recent Gotham arrival, Marcos Silva. He’s spent the past three decades inculcating a love of Brazilian music in Bay Area musicians, and he turned Wainapel on to two albums that seized his imagination, A Noite by Ivan Lins and Elis, Essa Mulher by Elis Regina.
“The fever I contracted became very strong and hasn’t gone away,” Wainapel says. “I think there are few jazz musicians who would listen to Brazilian music and not become enchanted. In my case it became an obsession, leading me to these annual trips, though I play jazz there too. Brazilians love jazz, so it’s 50/50. The deep immersion has helped my jazz playing, opening me up emotionally and melodically. But when it comes down to it, it’s hard to explain. I just got bit. I imagine it’s the same for George.”
Brooks does describe a similarly progression, with early exposure to classical Hindustani music leading to an abiding and ever expanding devotion to an incalculably vast tradition. His performance tonight at the Freight features a trio with Dutch harpist Gwyneth Wentink and Indian violinist/vocalist Kala Ramnath, focusing on material from the 2011 CD Elements, and is part of a tour supported by the Netherland America Foundation.
Best known for her international itinerary performing with major philharmonics, Wentink connected with Brooks through Indian flute legend Hariprasad Chaurasia, with whom they’ve performed together since 2005. One of the era’s most esteemed Hindustani violinists, Ramnath hails from an illustrious musical family and has thrived in classical and world music settings, including her Afro-Indian jazz ensemble Raga Afrika. In Elements, they’re aiming to put their own spin on North Indian classical music.
“The basic Indian ensemble is soloist and accompanist,” Brooks says. “What we’re aiming for is more of a chamber effect, where we view ourselves as equal threads in one fabric. The timbres are wonderful. I’m playing primarily soprano, and I like to think of myself as a saxophonist who can also be an accompanist, playing patterns and sustained tones that perpetuate the rhythm and enunciate the harmony but don’t call too much attention to themselves. Kala is also a fantastic singer, which is only mildly represented on the CD, and she’s bring in some traditional Indian poetry.”
Brooks first began exploring Indian music while attending New England Conservatory in the late 1970s. When his wife Emily received a fellowship to study Indian vocal music in 1980, they both spent a year there and Brooks developed a relationship with Pandit Pran Nath, the giant of North Indian vocal music who deeply influenced pioneering minimalist composers Terry Riley and LaMonte Young.
“I think the underlying spiritual intent was very captivating, what Coltrane was looking for,” he says. “To the dismay of some of my NEC teachers, I tried to figure out ways to incorporate that in my jazz playing. Good fortune brought me to California where there are a lot of great Indian musicians, and I studied with Pandit Pran Nath and Krishna Bhatt, who lived in Berkeley for a long time.”
Brooks spent many years immersing himself in Hindustani music before releasing 1996’s Lasting Impressions (Moment Records), a potent Indian jazz synthesis featuring Bhatt and Zakir Hussain. The imprimatur of Hussain, the world’s most celebrated tabla maestro, opened up numerous doors for Brooks, leading to collaborations with many of India’s greatest musicians in a wide array of contexts. Fully comfortable in jazz. blues and Hindustani settings, Brooks is making his own musical path.
“I’m as likely to sit down and transcribe something by Hariprasad Chaurasia as Dexter Gordon,” Brooks says. “Sometimes I think I should be listening to Fathead Newman, but I keep coming back to Indian music. I definitely don’t want to be a poor imitation. I feel my purpose is to find this third path. I’m introducing these jazz concepts to Indian classical musicians who don’t have experience with harmony or forms different than raga. I’m trying to give as much as I take.”
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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