Jazz pianist Art Lande
Jazz pianist Art Lande: Music is a “communal tribal exercise.” Photo: Courtesy of Art Lande
Jazz pianist Art Lande: Music is a “communal tribal exercise.” Photo: Courtesy of Art Lande

Art Lande makes no apologies for being old school. A brilliant pianist, efficient drummer and influential composer, he’s played a particularly important role as a teacher who treats every classroom and bandstand encounter as an opportunity for passing on jazz’s essential oral tradition.

Lande returns to Berkeley, where he got his start as an educator, to perform a duo concert Sunday, Oct. 5 at 4:30 p.m. at the California Jazz Conservatory with saxophonist Peter Sommer (he also performs Oct. 11 at Piedmont Piano with a quintet featuring Sommer, bassist Peter Barshay, drummer Alan Hall, and Berkeley-raised trumpeter Erik Jekabson). 

Recording prolifically for numerous labels, including half a dozen classic sessions for ECM, Lande has led several seminal bands, such as the mid-1970s quartet Rubisa Patrol with bassist Bill Douglass and trumpeter Mark Isham (who went on to renown and fortune as a Hollywood composer). But his ensembles tend to coalesce in teaching situations. Several generations of stellar young musicians have come of age under his wing, and then took flight to lead their own bands.

“I feel the music is a calling,” says Lande, 67, a long-time resident of Boulder, Colo. “It’s a communal tribal enterprise, and I play with people who I teach until there’s nothing to teach anymore.”

Now one of the top saxophonists in the Rocky Mountain region, Sommer met Lande as a freshman at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where the pianist offered regular clinics. He started going by Lande’s regular Wednesday gig at Denver’s West End Tavern, and while establishing himself on the Denver/Boulder jazz scene got a chance to study and play with veteran master.

“It was kind of terrifying at first,” says Sommer, who grew up in western Nebraska. “He was this almost mythical figure. It started by my going to his house and taking lessons in ear training, composition, and improvisation in general.”

Before long, Sommer was performing regularly in a trio with Lande on drums and as a sax and piano duo that released a fantastic album of Sommer’s compositions in 2005, Sioux County. They bring new music to just about every performance, and Sommer says that learning Lande’s tunes has profoundly shaped his own approach to melody, harmony and form. But their relationship off the bandstand is as creatively enriching as their bandstand encounters.

“When we go on tour we hang out almost the entire time,” Sommer says. “Though he’s a huge sports fan and I’m not too interested. We go for walks, go to someone else’s concert, the movies. We’re flying and driving together. That’s very much the whole experience of the tour, including rehearsing, and figuring out travel and housing. It’s all one large process that ends up coming out in the music.”

Raised on Long Island and introduced to jazz by his father, an accomplished pianist and improviser, Lande moved to San Francisco in the late 1960s after studying at Williams College. Within a few weeks word had spread about a hot new player in town, and he started gigging with emerging and established masters like Noel Jewkes, Eddie Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson, and John Handy, “not all the time, but I was the new kid on the block, and I was getting calls,” Lande says. “The whole atmosphere was really happening.”

Always interested in composing and leading his own bands, Lande first made a major impression in the early 1970s with a prodigious quintet featuring bassist Steve Swallow, saxophonist Mel Martin, trumpeter Tom Harrell, and drummer Eliot Zigmund. Recording for ECM opened up the European market, and he started performing there regularly in the mid-1970s. After settling in Berkeley around 1973 looking for respite from the rigors of the road he found himself besieged by young musicians looking to study with him, and he ended up creating a school while living on Russell and later Bonar, a forerunner to the Jazzschool (now the California Jazz Conservatory).

“There were too many people I didn’t know what to do with, so I said anyone who wants to come over to Berkeley at 7 a.m. I’ll take as a student, and I created a school out of that,” Lande recalls. “I ended up with about 120 students just teaching in the house and garage and in the park. People paid five bucks a class. It gave me a lot of chops in terms of teaching.”

The experience served him well, and he went on to hold faculty positions at innovative institutions like the Cornish Institute in Seattle, the Jazz School in Lausanne, Switzerland and Naropa Institute in Boulder, where he’s lived since 1987. Over the years he’s taught heavyweights like pianists Fred Hersch and Myra Melford, and an entire generation of Colorado improvisers, such as the rising drummer Colin Stranahan and keyboard wizard Erik Deutsch.

Despite his long shadow as a player and educator, Lande is still an underground figure. Ostensibly comprehensive reference books like The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD and The All Music Guide to Jazz don’t even have an entry on him. Proud of his students, he doesn’t mind that so many are basking in a spotlight he’s not interested in chasing.

“I love my daily life in Boulder,” Lande says. “I’ve always lived in places with beauty, where I can hear the music inside my head. It’s a choice and I feel good about it.”

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The beguiling vocalist Rachel Efron performs tonight at The Freight with bassist Dan Feiszli and drummer Dan Foltz on a double bill with the dynamic vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Joe Bagale, who performs in various Jazz Mafia settings, and with Rob Ewing’s ensemble devoted to the music of Radiohead, Disappear Incompletely.

The great East Bay Balkan band Édessa performs Saturday, Oct. 4 at Ashkenaz at 9 p.m. with special guest Christos Govetas on oud. Born in Greek Macedonia and based for many years in the Seattle area, Govetas gained recognition outside of Balkan contexts via his collaboration with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell’s stylistically expansive album The Intercontinentals (Nonesuch), which was nominated for a Grammy in 2004.

Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews

Berkeleyside’s Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas, will be held on Oct. 24-25 in downtown’s Arts District. Early bird tickets prices end on Monday! To see the full program of Uncharted and to buy tickets, visit the Uncharted website

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....