Smith Dobson plays the xxx on xxx. Photo: courtesy Smith Dobson
Smith Dobson plays the California Jazz Conservatory (formerly the JazzSchool)  on Friday, April 25. Photo: courtesy Smith Dobson
Smith Dobson plays the California Jazz Conservatory (formerly the JazzSchool)  on Friday, April 25. Photo: courtesy Smith Dobson

Contrary to what it might seem, the Roman numeral in Smith Dobson V’s name doesn’t mean there are five guys with the same moniker playing music around the region.

Rather, his daunting facility on drums, vibes, and alto and tenor saxophones means he can be found in any number of situations, including Friday at the California Jazz Conservatory (formerly the Jazzschool) with Friends with Benefits, a collective quartet featuring the masterly Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg, bassist Doug Stuart and pianist Michael Coleman. For that band Dobson plays alto and tenor sax.

Dobson holds down a regular Tuesday night gig at Club Deluxe in the Haight playing tenor with a formidable quartet, and then returns on Wednesdays as a drummer with top-shelf saxophonist/composer Patrick Wolff. On May 10 he’ll be holding down the drum chair at the Sound Room with Berkeley-raised trumpeter Erik Jekabson’s New Orleans Quintet, a different band than the one featured on Jekabson’s album Live at the Hillside Club with the superlative rhythm section of Dobson, bassist John Wiitala, and percussion great John Santos.

“I’m so grateful that Erik has continuously hired me for years now,” the Santa Cruz-raised Dobson said in a recent conversation from his home in Oakland. “There are so many great drummers he could hire instead of me. He understands that there’s such great value in having a core rhythm section for years and years. The only problem with being a multi-instrumentalist is that people forget that I do something. Right now, I rarely get called for the vibes. I focus on the saxophone so much, the vibes got thrown out the window though for a while Erik was having me play vibes and drums on a lot of his music.”

As a saxophonist part of what sets Dobson apart from his peers is his lithe, cool tone and relaxed, even phrasing. Inspired by Lester Young, the seminal tenor saxophonist who changed the shape of jazz in the 1930s with his sound and rhythmic feel, Dobson credits Ben Goldberg providing the inspiration to dedicate himself to the horn.

Ben Goldbert. Photo: John Rudoff
Ben Goldberg. Photo: John Rudoff

“When I first moved up to the Bay Area we had this long discussion about Lee Konitz,” Dobson recalled, referring to the legendary altoist, still going strong at 86, who resisted the intense gravitational force of Charlie Parker’s approach while coming of age in the mid-1940s. “That turned my whole world around in terms of improvisation.”

Dobson continued his musical journey, tracing Konitz’s trail of influences back to pianist Lennie Tristano, while absorbing the music and concept of another Tristano disciple, the criminally undersung tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh. Eventually, he launched Friends with Benefits to create opportunities to play with Goldberg, discovering that they had an “instant connection,” Dobson said. “Ben started leaving me little messages, like I’m crazy about your saxophone playing. It was so amazing not only to get to play with the person who inspired me, but to have him really enjoy it.”

Friends with Benefits was also a vehicle to play saxophone with Oakland pianist Michael Coleman, “one of the most talented players around with such a clear vision conceptually,” Dobson said. “Playing with him on the drums is such a remarkable experience. We created this trio with Doug Stuart on bass, and I got occasional opportunities to play saxophone, and knew I had to find a way to create a band around that.”

Dobson credits his parents, the late, beloved pianist Smith Dobson IV and vocalist Gail Dobson, with providing his initial musical inspiration. He and his younger sister, New York singer/songwriter Sasha Dobson, were barely in grade school when they became gigging musicians with the family band, performing widely in classrooms in Santa Cruz and South Bay school districts. By the time he was in junior high, Dobson was a regular busker on Santa Cruz’s Pacific Garden Mall in a duo with trombonist Scott Larson.

Something of a social misfit

Like many devoted young musicians, Dobson was something of a social misfit. When most of his peers were just starting to figure out their musical tastes, he was the regular drummer at a jam session led by the inventive pianist Graham Connah. He escaped from high school by getting a GED, and continued his studies with the highly regarded educator Ray Brown at Cabrillo College. The prodigiously talented drummer Jeff Ballard, a student of Brown’s who went on to tour and record with pianists Chick Corea and Brad Mehldau, became Dobson’s first important trap set mentor. Later, he studied with veteran drummer Eddie Marshall, another key mentor.

In some ways Friends with Benefits was designed to get back to Dobson’s earliest experiences experimenting with free jazz, when he would get together with friends, start playing without a set tune and see what developed. After years of writing music for his rock band Grand Lodge, he’s enjoying composing for a wide-open jazz setting.

“I wanted to create an opportunity where I could stretch out again,” Dobson said. “It’s still very composed, but drawing on Ornette Coleman, one on of my core heroes. He composes in a very intuitive way, getting away from structures. I often heard from Eddie Marshall, who used to go check out Ornette rehearse when he first got to New York, that there were no bar lines on the charts. The band intuitively felt the phrases. It’s about listening, and Ben and Michael are perfect for that.”

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. He lives in West Berkeley.

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Andrew Gilbert

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....