You’ll rarely get an argument on the streets of Berkeley by disparaging Los Angeles. While oft-maligned as a cultural wasteland, LA actually boasts a vast, vibrant and well-entrenched cultural scene that continues to draw the East Bay’s sons and daughters, particularly standout players from Berkeley High’s vaunted jazz program. On Sunday, several recent BHS graduates return from the Southland to perform at Freight & Salvage with the UCLA Charles Mingus Ensemble under the direction of composer James Newton.
Originally created as part of a class that Newton teaches as a professor of ethnomusicology in UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music (he’s arguably the most celebrated jazz flutist of the past four decades and a longtime collaborator with Berkeley percussionist/bandleader Anthony Brown), the group took on an identity of its own during a tour of Macedonia and Kosovo earlier this year.
“The Macedonia tour was so successful,” says Richmond-raised drummer Forrest Mitchell, a BHS graduate who’s now freelancing around Southern California. “This group of players really meshed musically and socially. We wanted to keep it going, and keep the Mingus/UCLA name out there. We played a great show in San Diego and it made sense to book a Northern California show.”
“This was originally a world music ensemble and the idea was to bring together musicians and composers from different backgrounds to study the music of Mingus, and try to gain perspective on his music,” says bassist Erik Shiboski, a UCLA senior who graduated from BHS in 2011.
“James Newton’s big thing is how Mingus’s music brought together all different areas of jazz, the most modern experiments and blues and roots. He wanted that encompassing perspective to be part of the ensemble.”
With the Balkan tour, the group coalesced as septet that also features trombonist and BHS grad Jonah Levine and East Bay trumpeter Zach Ramacier. While Mingus wrote numerous jazz standards, including “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” “Nostalgia In Times Square,” “Better Get It In Yo Soul” and the caustic “Fables of Faubus,” the band’s repertoire focuses on lesser played pieces such as “Self-Portrait in Three Colors,” “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk,” and “Blues for Eric,” a searing lament composed right after the death of reed master Eric Dolphy, Mingus’s bandmate and fellow Angeleno.
A protean bassist, entrepreneur, bandleader and ingenious composer, Mingus contained multitudes. Since his death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1979 at the age of 56 his music has gained increasing visibility through the efforts of his widow, Sue Mingus. She’s created three celebrated bands dedicated to exploring his compositions, drawing from an ever-expanding, overlapping cast of New York’s finest improvisers. Saxophonist and Berkeley High alum Craig Handy has directed the most prolific unit, the Mingus Big Band, and James Newton was an early member of Mingus Dynasty, the original seven-piece ensemble founded shortly after Mingus’s death.
Despite it’s name the UCLA Mingus Ensemble casts a wider net, also interpreting music by stride piano legend Willie “The Lion” Smith, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and Eric Dolphy. With only 50 or so students in the music program, it seems odd that about 20% hail from Berkeley, but at this point the trail south is well trod.
“One reason I chose UCLA is the strong Berkeley presence,” Shiboski says. “Also, it feels close to home, and it’s a great school. I live with musicians in the program who are friends from high school, specifically Berkeley High Jazz Band alumni and Bay Area kids who played at the Jazzschool.”
Recommended gig: Ian Carey at the California Jazz Conservatory
East Bay trumpeter/composer Ian Carey premieres a new work, Interview Music: A Suite for Quintet+1 Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory (formerly the Jazzschool). A follow up to his excellent 2013 album Roads and Codes, one of my favorite albums of the year, the suite is titled ironically, playing on the vogue for jazz musicians to develop high concept projects as grant bait. Carey’s band boasts some of the best players around, with pianist Adam Shulman, bassist Fred Randolph, drummer Jon Arkin, altoist Kasey Knudsen, and Sheldon Brown on bass clarinet.
And if you like your music wild and wooly, get thyself to the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space at 2133 University Ave on Wednesday, where the planets align for “Images: The Music of Sun Ra.” Featuring trumpeter Dan Clucas, trombonist Clifford Childers, tenor saxophonist David Boyce, altoist Phillip Greenlief, guitarist Karl Evangelista, keyboardist Dominique Leone, and drummer Jordan Glenn, this is an ensemble that travels the spacewaves.
Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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