Amber Gougis is going places, but she’s taking her own winding way. A thoughtful singer who infuses jazz with soul and brings an improvisation-laced sensibility to Chicago blues and mid-century R&B, she returns to the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley on Wednesday. While she’s earned widespread respect around the Bay Area music scene, the Oakland singer decided to give up her every-other-week gig at the Gourmet Ghetto eatery after a two-year run to take a position as a nanny.
“I like having a steady job,” says Gougis, 30. “But I’m really excited to be back at the Cheese Board. It’s such a great place to develop as a musician. You can hire great musicians because it pays. It’s such a good environment. I really grew as a musician during those two years.”
She’s filling in for touring soulman Quinn DeVeaux on Wednesday, performing with a rhythm section drawn from his regular cast of players, including drummer Cairo McCochran, bassist Kenan O’Brien, and pianist Marco Casasola (who can often be heard accompanying Berkeley jazz and blues vocalist Faye Carol). She also plays Club Deluxe in the Haight on Friday with O’Brien, Chris Burns on organ, and Gichi Taylor on trumpet.
A deft guitarist who’s studied with jazz guitar master Calvin Keys, Gougis will be playing some originals and a book of songs selected to serve her evangelical impulse to promote soul music.
“I’ve been really into Irma Thomas, Candi Staton, and Little Willie John lately,” Gougis says. “My goal is to introduce people to great artists who didn’t get recognition they deserved, so I’ll often tell little about the artists. I also listen to a lot of jazz standards but in performing I’ve moved from jazz to the old school soul.”
Born on the Southside of Chicago, where she still has deep family and cultural roots, Gougis was five when her family relocated to San Luis Obispo. She soaked up her mom’s Motown records as a kid, paying particular attention to Diana Ross (as well as Tina Turner). She credits her high school choir director with turning her onto jazz, and SLO-based jazz singer Inga Swearingen with providing a good deal of inspiration.
After earning an undergraduate degree in language studies from UC Santa Cruz (she focused on Italian), Gougis lit out for Paris, where she started performing and songwriting. “I was living this Bohemian lifestyle,” she recalls. “I was a nanny, I had my own little apartment.”
After about a year she moved back to California, joining her mother in San Jose, where she started singing at J.J.’s Blues and performing at South Bay open mics. Before long she had moved up to Oakland, and in the thick of the burgeoning neo-soul scene with Quinn DeVeaux. Singing back up with the charismatic singer, songwriter and guitarist, she connected with a wide array of acts, most importantly the California Honeydrops and Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers.
“Lavay and Chris Seibert are mentors,” Gougis says. “They’ve taught me a lot about musicians in the Bay Area. They’re passionate about working with these great older musicians, like trombonist Danny Armstrong. At this point I feel like I know a lot of people on different scenes. I still go to jazz jams. I’ll sing in indie rock bands with friends from college. I even sang back up in a hard rock band.”
One reason that Gougis hasn’t broken out of the Bay Area yet is that she hasn’t marshaled the resources to put out her own album. She’s got several promising projects on the drawing board, but she’s biding her time.
“Recording is such a hard beast hard to tackle,” Gougis says. “It takes money and time. I don’t see myself doing any professional recording soon.”
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