Karl Evangelista (left) has organized at a benefit concert for Typhoon Haiyan victims in Berkeley on Saturday.

Keeping up with the latest weather-induced disaster is difficult in the best of times, but with the rapid succession of floods, freezes and droughts it’s too easy to lose track of the ongoing misery inflicted by Typhoon Haiyan. The strongest storm ever recorded making landfall, it brought unprecedented devastation to the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

Guitarist/composer Karl Evangelista, a Los Angeles-born Filipino-American, has organized a benefit concert for Typhoon Haiyan relief Saturday at the Berkeley Arts Festival space at 2133 University Avenue. With all of the evening’s proceeds (including CD sales) going toward a ground-level mission in the hard-hit Visayas islands, the event brings together a stellar cast of Bay Area improvisers in three interlaced but very different ensembles.

I feel it’s important to bridge musical experimentation and social activism,” says Evangelista, 27.

Evangelista’s rock-inflected, improvisation-laced trio Grex headlines at the benefit, celebrating the release of its first album Monster Music on the band’s new label Brux. Pianist/keyboardist Michael Coleman’s talent-laden sextet Enjoyer plays his originals and his arrangements of several Grex songs, an outgrowth of Lisa Mezzacappa’s wonderfully incestuous Festivus (or Festival-of-Us), in which Bay Area bands get together to play music by other Bay Area bands.

“We played some Grex tunes at Festivus last December, but Karl got stuck in traffic and missed it,” Coleman says. “I knew he would want to hear it so we’ll do three of his songs, and some of our own Enjoyer material. His music makes a lot of sense to me. It doesn’t really fit in any genre so it was easy to reapply it to a completely different context.”

Rounding out Saturday’s concert is drummer Jordan Glenn’s double chamber ensemble featuring Evangelista and Grex drummer Robert Lopez, which premieres a new extended work that Glenn designed for the band’s unusual instrumentation with two vibraphonists (Mark Clifford and Scott Siler).

“One of the things I like about the Bay Area scene is that we tend to circulate the same musicians between different ensembles,” Evangelista says. “In order to survive you have to be versatile. It’s sort of evolution by necessity. Everyone’s worked with everyone else in a variety of situations.

Born to immigrant parents, Evangelista grew up with close ties to the Philippines. Hailing from a highly political family, he spent much of 1992 back on the archipelago while his parents worked to support his aunt’s campaign for the presidency (an election Miriam Defensor Santiago only lost due to fraud, according to reports at reports at the time).

Karl Evangelista’s rock-inflected, improvisation-laced trio Grex will headline at the concert.

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Evangelista was smitten by the guitar as a young teen, and quickly gravitated to LA’s rich but underground avant-garde jazz scene, finding inspiration from pioneering artists like cornetist Bobby Bradford and pianist/composer Horace Tapscott. He moved to Berkeley in 2004 to study at Cal, where he was disappointed to discover that undergrads were largely locked out of majoring in ethnomusicology. But he found an invaluable ally in recently hired music professor Myra Melford, who helped him design an interdisciplinary studies major focusing on his research into social transformation and free jazz in South Africa.

He made a fateful contact at Cal when bassist John-Carlos Perea, then a graduate student instructor and now a Grammy Award-winning producer, recognized his passion for experimental jazz. He put Evangelista in touch with tenor saxophonist Francis Wong, a foundational figure in the Asian-American jazz movement of the 1980s. While AsianImprov, the label and arts organization that Wong helped found, was far less active than it had been in the past, Evangelista ended up working with many of the artists associated with it, including pianist Jon Jang and saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh.

He continued his studies at Mills College with the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Roscoe Mitchell and guitarist Fred Frith who “really pushed me out of my comfort zone musically,” Evangelista says. His musical life continues to revolve around a large contingent of Mills graduates, as does his personal life. It was in a Mills gamelan class that he met his future wife, classically trained pianist Rei Scampavia, who plays handles piano, synth and vocals in Grex. The band became a forum for combining divergent musical interests, with Scampavia’s commitment to notated music and Evangelista’s facility as an improviser.

“We wound up writing a bunch of songs that were well suited for our interests at the time,” Evangelista says. “It was very liberating to work with someone else handling the notated music and singing. Grex songs are nominally pop, but functioning in this improvisational context. They’re very cyclical and sectional with a lot of cues.”

He’s been deeply enmeshed in the Bay Area’s experimental music scene, collaborating with a wide array of players and composers, while teaching at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. A 2011 Zellerbach Grant helped support the creation of his most ambitious work Taglish, a suite centered on Filipino-American culture that he released on a 2012 album funded via Kickstarter. The project marked a personal watershed, the first time he explicitly explored Filipino-American identity in his music.

“The end result was that the music took on a very different character,” Evangelista says. “I wondered if it would change what I was doing in Grex. It raised the question, are you Filipino-American musician by virtue of what you play, or by virtue of being a musician who’s Filipino-American. I’ve sided with the latter. I’m Filipino-American but my natural tendency veers toward black American free jazz, and I can best honor my ethnic tradition by tapping into musical contexts closest to me.”

Evangelista presents another triple bill at San Francisco’s Center for New Music on March 15 as part of the Best Coast Jazz Composers Series featuring a solo guitar set, Grex Chamber Ensemble, and his band Host Family featuring guitarist Nathan Clevenger, bassist Jason Hoopes, and drummer Jordan Glenn.

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express. He lives in West Berkeley.

To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, be sure to check out Berkeleyside’s recently launched Events Calendar. We encourage you also 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....