For cellists looking to venture off the well-trod path from the conservatory to the symphony orchestra or string quartet these are the best of times. What started with 1970s pioneers like Abdul Wadud, Hank Roberts, Diedre Murray, Akua Dixon, and later Turtle Island String Quartet’s Mark Summer has turned into a veritable movement, and no one is doing more to open up possibilities for cello players in the Southland than Jacob Szekely.
The Los Angeles based player and educator makes his Bay Area debut with his trio at Oakland’s Sound Room on Friday, Oct. 30, and presents a Saturday afternoon master class at Freight & Salvage, “Introduction to the Improviser’s Guide to the Cello.” Like the vast majority of his fellow cello players Szekely grew up studying European classical music. After earning degrees from the Interlochen Arts Academy and University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music he launched a series of string ensembles, from the jazz steeped quartet Supernova and the plugged in fusion combo Eartha Austria Trio to Quarteto Nuevo, world jazz chamber group with percussionist Chris Garcia.
But he paid the bills as a first-call freelancer with acts such as Mary J. Blige, Jay Z, Ellie Goulding, and Avril Lavigne. He came up with the idea for his trio in 2013 while touring with Rush. Though the schedule was hectic, the nature of life on the road is hurry up and wait, which gave him plenty of time on the bus to reflect on how he wanted to define himself as a musician.
“So much of my work has as been as a sideman in projects where I’m very much a member and not a leader,” says Szekely, 37. “I spent a lot of time breaking out of playing traditional cello, and I really wanted to focus on who I was and what I sounded like. I wanted to show people that the cello could play bebop, fusion, or Latin. It started as a compositional process, and then I looked at the musicians who help bring that concept to fruition.”
Earlier this year he released Jacob Szekely Trio featuring drummer Christopher Allis and pianist Josh Nelson (Mike Ragonese is taking over the piano chair this weekend), a far-ranging project designed to “rethink the cello with each composition on the record,” he says. “On ‘Diana’s Lullaby,’ I play five-string electric cello. I usually compose at the piano, but for that piece I wrote it on the cello. ‘Corner Song’ came about when I was sitting around experimenting with a looping pedal, going for a rock- based groove.”
Szekely has amplified his influence off the bandstand through a series of initiatives such as String Project LA, a collective of musicians dedicated to training young string players to tackle music far beyond the classical canon, including hip hop, Latin American, Brazilian, rock, jazz, funk and blues. A perennial challenge for violinist, violists and cellists working in electric settings is making themselves heard. He addressed the issue of amplification with The Pickup Test, a comprehensive sound library of every single pick up available on the market. He’s also the creator of the Improvisor’s Guide to the Cello Academy, an on-line curriculum from which he’ll be drawing Saturday at the Freight.
While Los Angeles was home to some early jazz cello experiments, most importantly Fred Katz’s work with Chico Hamilton’s popular mid-1950s quintet, it doesn’t have the Bay Area’s rich history of string renegades like Berkeley’s Irene Sazer, Mike Marshall, Barbara Higbie, and Darol Anger (who performs on Nov. 8 at Studio 55 Marin in San Rafael with the Furies, a band featuring another extraordinary cellist, Tristan Clarridge). It was an early encounter with Turtle Island String Quartet at Interlochen that set him on his present course. He considers TISQ cellist Mark Summer “one of three giants whose shoulders I stand on. He’s someone who really developed plucking and strumming techniques that influenced a generation of cellists, but for me it’s about the bow and the sound the bow creates. Mark stands almost alone in that regard. There’s no cellist that I’ve heard who I can put on his level in the world of jazz.”
In June, Turtle Island announced that Carolina Chocolate Drops cellist Malcolm Parson will be joining the quartet in January 2016 upon Summer’s departure to pursue a solo career (Szekely was one of the other two players who auditioned for the chair). One of his first projects will be teaching and performing at the String Project LA’s 4th annual LA Creative String Festival.
Recommended Gig: Erika Oba at the California Jazz Conservatory
Berkeley High alum Erika Oba presents an evening of new works celebrating “Rituals of Death” at the California Jazz Conservatory on Halloween. Building on her aptly named trio project Ends’ Meat Catastrophe Jazz Ensemble featuring Rachel Austin on evil electronics and vocals and Adam Adhiyatma on spooky alto clarinet and guitar, she’s adding her frequent partner in duo mayhem Chris Bastian on the fearsome bass. Oba wields a fierce flute and panicky piano.
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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