The 88 keys: Tammy Hall plays Berkeley on Sunday

Tammy Hall
Tammy Hall: plays R. Kassman Fine Pianos on Sunday as part of their Sunday at the 88s series. Photo: courtesy Tammy Hall

Piano lovers take note: there are some great players hitting Berkeley this weekend.

Tammy Hall can usually be found accompanying some of the best jazz singers in the region and tenor sax greats like Houston Person, who described her as “one mighty soulful lady.” But she makes a rare solo outing 5 p.m. Sunday at R. Kassman Fine Pianos in Berkeley as part of Barbara Higbie’s monthly solo recital series Sunday at the 88s, a repeatedly rewarding showcase for exceptional pianists.

Possessing an uncluttered, telegraphic style marked by her conservatory training and deep roots in gospel, Hall gracefully combines elegance and grit. Her enticing blend of soul and precision has made her an invaluable collaborator for vocalists such as Etta Jones, Kim Nalley, Denise Perrier, Rhonda Benin, Linda Tillery, Frankye Kelly, and Veronica Klaus, who have all availed themselves of Hall’s keyboard services.

Born and raised in Dallas, she first started playing music in the Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church. By eight she was studying classical music, while soaking up the sounds around her, absorbing influences such as Stevie Wonder, Ahmad Jamal, Hank Jones, Cedar Walton, Dorothy Donegan, Joe Sample and Oscar Peterson.


She won a scholarship to the elite Hockaday School for Girls, where she took informal jazz lessons with a sympathetic music teacher. In 1979 Hall moved to Oakland to attend Mills College on scholarship, but after two years she left the program, looking to gain experience on the Bay Area jazz scene. She attracted considerable attention in the mid-80s with an all-women fusion band Beyond Definitions, but decided to try her luck in Belgium in 1987, settling in Brussels and working the European jazz festival circuit. When she returned to the Bay Area in 1989, she was far more seasoned, and before long had won a reputation as an ace accompanist.

She gave up her day job as a law office bookkeeper in 2004 in order to concentrate exclusively on music. “It’s been a real roller coaster, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything,” Hall says. “That’s all I want to do. I want you to hear my music and feel good, or just feel, period.”

Some three decades before Hall made a name for herself on the Bay Area scene, Don Alberts was a rising star, holding down a gig as a house pianist at the Filmore District’s fabled afterhours joint Jimbo’s Bop City. He plays the Berkeley Arts Festival space at 8 p.m. Sunday with veteran drummer Art “Sharky” Lewis, a confederate since the early 1960s, and bassist Aaron Cohn.

Alberts and Lewis met as young men on the Bay Area scene and paid dues at venues like Jesters, a club across from the San Jose Civic Auditorium. Impressed by their trio with bassist Don Russo (who passed away last year), the popular West Coast baritone saxophonist Virgil Gonsalves recruited them as his rhythm section.

In the mid-60s however, the burgeoning San Francisco rock movement rapidly eclipsed the jazz scene, and by the end of the decade all three players had left town looking for greener pastures. The Richmond-raised Alberts, a prolific composer who mostly focuses on original tunes, ended up settling in Portland, Ore. for two decades, where he played regularly with the great singer Nancy King and bass masters David Friesen, Leroy Vinnegar and Glen Moore.

He returned to the Bay Area from Southern California at Russo’s behest in the late 1990s and delved back into the scene as an elder statesman.

They reconnected with Lewis in 2005 at a Sunday jam session at San Francisco’s Dogpatch Saloon, and ended up recording a couple of strong albums devoted to Alberts’ tunes, most recently 2011’s Three Chord Molly (full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes).

“We don’t like to admit we’ve known each other so long, but we do go way back,” says Alberts, who’s won a series of ASCAP Jazz Composers Awards.

Lewis, who was born in New Orleans and grew up in Alameda, was a protégé of Philly Joe Jones. He spent several years on the road with vocalese pioneer Jon Hendricks before moving to New York City in the late 1960s. A busy freelancer, he played with many of the music’s most adventurous improvisers, such as Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Lee Konitz, Sam Rivers, and Andrew Hill, with whom he recorded several albums.

Following new opportunities, he became a sought-after accompanist in Munich and Paris, working with American musicians who needed to pick up a rhythm section for European gigs. He settled back in the Bay Area in 1992, and ended up finding an ideal outlet for his relentlessly creative drum work with his old compatriots.

“Some of Don’s arrangements are a little different, and he gives me freedom to improvise, to play different time signatures, tempos and beats,” says Lewis, who lives in Marin’s San Geronimo Valley. “It gives me a chance to compose a rhythm structure around the form of the tune. It keeps you thinking.”

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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