A bassist for all occasions (photo by Ruby Ray)
A bassist for all occasions: Fred Randolph plays Berkeley Friday. Photo: Ruby Ray

A consummate musician who can be found playing jazz, salsa, samba, rock, fusion and any number of other styles, Fred Randolph is one of the busiest bassists in the Bay Area. The story of how he attained that enviable status is full of unlikely twists, with several instrumental detours along the way.

Though usually employed as a sideman, he’s released several engaging albums under his own name, most recently Song Without Singing (Creative Spirit Records), a project that showcases his rhythmic range and melodically charged compositional vision. Featuring Berkeley-raised trumpeter Erik Jekabson, pianist Matt Clark, saxophonist Sheldon Brown, and drummer Greg Wyser-Pratte, the Fred Randolph Band celebrates the album’s release 8 p.m. Friday Nov. 20 at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists as part of Jazz in the Neighborhood program (pianist Ian McArdle, a former student of Randolph’s, opens the show). He’s joined by the same exceptional cast at the California Jazz Conservatory on January 15.

“His music is fun and challenging and he writes in a lot of different styles,” says Jekabson, who also performs with the sumptuous jazz vocalist Jackie Ryan at Yoshi’s on Sunday, Nov. 22 . “There are all these cool interlocking melodies and rhythms, with a lot of drama, odd time signatures and technical virtuosity, and Fred is very specific about what he wants, to the point of writing out piano voicings and grooves. You don’t see that very often.”

Now living in San Francisco, Randolph traces his affinity for strings to his upbringing in Honolulu, where he started playing ukulele as a young teen in the early 1970s. In a move that at first sounds nonsensical, he moved to Berkeley in 1976 when he found San Diego too cold for his comfort. He’d enrolled at UCSD looking for a good surfing situation but was disappointed to discover that Southern California’s stretch of the Pacific Ocean couldn’t compete with Hawaii’s.

“I didn’t want to have to wear a wetsuit, and I decided I was done with surfing,” he says. “I’d always been into music, and I’d heard that Berkeley was more happening culturally, so I transferred up here.”

San Diego may have lacked in culture, but it did stoke his interest in jazz. He arrived at UCSD smitten with the guitar, and he fell in with a teacher who turned him onto modern jazz masters like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. He played guitar all through his first undergrad stint at Cal when he majored in political science, but by the time he went back to get a second BA in music he had switched to saxophone.

“It all makes sense now because I teach high school band,” says Randolph, the band director at Bishop O’Dowd High School. “I was trying to find something that worked. I wasn’t getting to jazz with a guitar, so I eventually went and got a saxophone from a pawn shop. That seemed like the best way into jazz, but I was playing a lot of lousy wedding gigs. I’d put on a tux and play a lot of Michael Jackson and ‘The Wind Beneath my Wings.’ I learned a lot, but it was a dead end.”

Looking to expand his musical resources, Randolph decided to pursue a masters in composition at Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), where he added clarinet and trumpet to his arsenal. But as he was finishing up the program with a writing project for string quartet and bass he experienced his most consequent musical epiphany as he found himself “fascinated by the sound of the bass.” He took lessons with the school’s bass guru Carl Stanley and started sitting in North Beach’s Gathering Café with Bishop Norman Williams, the great Kansas City bebop saxophonist who mentored several generations of Bay Area jazz musicians.

“Before I knew it I was working three nights a week as a bass player,” Randolph says. “And right away I’m going out to Jazz at Pearl’s hearing guys like John Wiitala and Peter Barshay, thinking I better get it together.”

Randolph, whose now studying with Tim Spears, continued his bass mission with Frank Tusa and Kai Eckhardt. And like so many Bay Area musicians he credits the Brazilian piano maestro Marcos Silva with refining his rhythmic skills and preparing him to play in Brazilian music settings. “He’s one of the most talent people I’ve ever met,” he says. “He taught me that you have to be precise about time. The first day playing for him he said you’re really rushing. No, I’m not. He went out and got a metronome and showed me. I went out after that and got myself a metronome.”

A snapshot of his present commitments include a semi-regular gig playing Latin jazz with the Mario Flores Group (the next hit is Nov. 27 at San Francisco’s Pier 23 Café), and a longtime collaboration with Berkeley pianist Michael Smolens, who presents his annual house concert on Dec. 6  focusing on his New American Songbook project,

“He’s radically reimagining standards,” Randolph says. “He’s got the Spanish jazz singer Rocio Guitard and Kris Strom on reeds, some great musicians. It’s real challenging stuff, and I’m playing stand up, electric and fretless.”

He also performs Dec. 13 with guitarist Larry Stefl’s Brazilian jazz combo at Avanova, a superb house concert series in Oakland, and Jan. 2 at the California Jazz Conservatory with the quartet of Berkeley saxophonist Bob Kenmotsu, a well-traveled player who has recorded with jazz giants such as guitarist Pat Martino, drummer Billy Hart, and Hammond B-3 organist Brother Jack McDuff.

Given his busy schedule, it’s no wonder that he makes the most of the opportunities to present his own music. His band features top shelf improvisers who are almost as overcommitted. “Erik is on everybody’s gig,” Randolph says. “Things come alive when he’s around. When he improvisers I always feel he plays like a composer. Lots of people play great, but he takes an idea and develops it.”

Rob Roth has held down the band’s saxophone chair, but he had another gig and Randolph hired Sheldon Brown, a universally admired player with whom he plays in trumpeter Ian Carey’s band. He and pianist Matt Clark often end up hired for recordings together, and Wyser-Pratte is a sensitive and hard swinging drummer who made his reputation on the Chicago scene.

Not quite the band that plays Friday at the Berkeley Fellowship. L to R, Brian Rice, Erik Jzekabson, Greg Wyser-Pratte, FR, Matt Clark, and Rob Roth
Not quite the band that plays Friday at the Berkeley Fellowship. L to r: Brian Rice, Erik Jekabson, Greg Wyser-Pratte, FR, Matt Clark and Rob Roth. Photo: Lincoln Adler

Randolph consistently attracts and retains top-shelf talent because his music challenges musicians, starting with the fundamentals. He wants the players to make his arrangements their own, while engaging deeply with arrangements that build upon “melodic integrity,” he says.

“That’s what lingers in your head about a great pop song or a symphony. The final piece is how can we take this situation and come out with it not exactly the way we started. Miles Davis was the master of this. Get the right guys, set up a situation and give them enough material to create something. And then they’re owners.”

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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Andrew Gilbert

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....