Beth Custer. Photo: Federico Cusigch
Beth Custer. Photo: Federico Cusigch

When Noam Chomsky is asked to provide the topic for a speaking engagement many months in the future he’s said to suggest “The Conflict in the Middle East.” Perhaps the story is apocryphal, but the re-issue of clarinet/composer Beth Custer’s 2005 album “Respect As A Religion” provides a similar reminder that some topical themes sadly never seem to go out of date. With the US entangled in numerous hotspots and unstable regions, Custer figured the time was ripe to break out her underground hit “Empire of the United States,” the scathing, funk-laden bebop-informed denunciation of American foreign policy that opens the album.

“It’s probably not the greatest financial decision, but the album sold out the first pressing and I never ordered more,” says Custer, who brings an expanded version of her stellar band to Freight & Salvage on Saturday. “With all this ramping up to war I thought it seemed like the right time to bring it out again.”

One of the Bay Area’s most versatile and respected composers, Custer can often be found creating music for dance, particularly her in long-running collaboration with the Joe Goode Performance Group, and film, like her recent San Francisco Cinematheque commission to compose and perform live scores for the work of Alexander Hammid at SFMOMA.

She’s at her most freewheeling writing, singing, and playing with the Beth Custer Group, which is built on the muscular rhythm section tandem of drummer Jan Jackson and guitarist/vocalist David James, who also composes and arranges for the band. The ensemble also features trumpeter Chris Grady, bassist Vicky Grossi, and vocalist Diana Mangano, who spent about 15 years touring and recording with the “next generation” Jefferson Starship that Paul Kantner launched in the earl1990s. At the Freight, the BCE will be joined by special guests Alan Williams on trombone and Daria Johnson on vocals.

Drawing on everything from jazz, indie rock and Afro-Caribbean music to American folk, blues and contemporary classical music, Custer writes vivid themes that surge and soar over taut, sinewy grooves. While she’ll be focusing on the songs from the reissued album, she’s breaking new personal ground by also exploring several pieces by other composers, such as Steely Dan’s “Monkey In Your Soul,” a David James arrangement of a tune by the great Brazilian samba/choro composer Nelson Cavaquinho, and Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” a piece inspired by pianist Brad Mehldau’s version.

“I’ve always been against cover tunes, but as I get older I realize you never say never,” Custer says. “I realized you learn a lot from doing it. It’s a puzzle, a challenge. How do you take a tune that’s not yours and make it sound good for your band. The pieces we’re doing are mostly really short and to the point.”

Beth Custer Ensemble Photo: Federico Cusigh
Beth Custer Ensemble Photo: Federico Cusigh

Raised in Freedonia, NY, Custer was exposed to music by her father, who had aspired to be a concert pianist before going to law school. She took piano lessons as a child and started playing clarinet in school at the age of nine. By the time she enrolled at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music she had settled on the clarinet as her primary instrument, and had started playing jazz. She expanded her musical horizons during a year of graduate school at Michigan State, but a bike trip to the Bay Area convinced her she belonged in San Francisco, where she settled in 1981.

She quickly joined Club Foot Orchestra, an ensemble created by Richard Marriott that was gaining attention for its innovative work writing and performing scores for silent films. After completing her masters in clarinet performance at San Francisco State, she continued her studies with renowned Carmel clarinetist Risario Matzeo, who encouraged her writing.

Supporting herself by working in record stores, and later by running her own bookkeeping business, Custer honed her compositional sensibility through her work with Club Foot and at solo clarinet recitals she performed at galleries. It wasn’t until the early 90s though that she embraced her identity as a composer.

“Once I received my first artist in residency at the Marin Headlands Institute, that’s when I started to take myself more seriously,” Custer says. “Oh, I guess I am an artist.”

Always at the helm of several different ensembles at any given time, Custer performs regularly at Berkeley’s Hillside Club with the singular quartet Clarinet Thing with reed maestros Sheldon Brown, Ben Goldberg, and Harvey Wainapel (they return to the venue on Oct. 17). She’s working on an album with a revived Trance Mission Trio with Stephen Kent on didjeridu, percussion, and sinter, and Peter Panagos Valsamis drums, percussion, and samples.

She’s also continued to write for film, most importantly her beautiful, exhilarating score for Kote Mikaberidze’s My Grandmother (Chemi Bebia), an amazing Soviet silent film that was banned upon its release in 1929. Forgotten for a half-century, the film was restored by the Soviets in the mid-70s, and was rarely seen in the US. Considered a masterpiece of the Soviet Eccentric Cinema movement, it’s a scathing satire of the already moribund bureaucracy that defined the Soviet system even in the early years of Stalinism.

Custer first encountered the film ago when the Pacific Film Archive hired her to perform live for a screening. Everyone was so taken with the results that the PFA worked with her to land a prestigious Aaron Copland Recording Fund award to record and release her score with the film on DVD. She’s performed the score live around Europe, including a trip to Mikaberidze’s ancestral homeland Georgia. And she’ll be performing it in New York in the fall as part of a PFA program sharing treasures from the archives.

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, bookmark Berkeleyside’s  Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

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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....