Susan Brand. Photo: courtesy Susan Brand
Susan Brand. Photo: courtesy Susan Brand

At the age of 50, with her children safely out of the house and enrolled in college, Berkeley psychologist Susan Brand decided to pursue a longtime dream of learning to play jazz piano. She knew it wouldn’t be easy, “but I had no idea how difficult it was going to be,” she says. “It’s been a steep learning curve ever since then.”

She discovered the Jazzschool in its first incarnation when it was located above La Note restaurant on Shattuck and quickly immersed herself in the jazz tradition. Before long she began to see profound connections between the interplay between musicians in a combo and the give and take that characterizes a successful therapy session, connections she’ll explore in a public talk on Monday, noon-1:30 p.m. at the Alta Bates Herrick Campus in the Malfoy Room, “Jazz and Psychotherapy: An Exploration of Discipline and Freedom.”

“I’ve taken every class at the California Jazz Conservatory (formerly the Jazzschool) and worked with amazing teachers, people who teach you how to find a voice,” she says. “That’s really the role of a therapist, helping our patients formulate their thoughts, giving them support and love to get over fears. There’s a lot of shame around free association in therapy, just like there is in soloing, when your heart’s beating so fast you can’t hear anyone else’s rhythm. I’ve come to see so much of my work is about giving people a chance to tell their story, to find a deeper meaning.”

Officially a continuing education course, Brand’s talk is designed to explore the parallel role of improvisation, listening and storytelling in jazz and psychotherapy. She’ll have some musical help along the way. She’s enlisted the Groove Tonic Trio to demonstrate close listening on the bandstand. The combo features keyboardist Greg Sankovich and tenor saxophonist Lincoln Adler (who happened to release a 2004 album Sax Therapy), longtime musical partners in the  groove-oriented band Times 4. They’ve also played together in various ensembles led by Berkeley bassist/composer Kurt Ribak, performing on his recent album I’ve Got One More! and joining him at the Albatross on Dec. 19.

South Bay jazz vocalist Rocío Guitard, who was born in Germany and raised in Spain, will also be on hand. Her most recent album, 2011’s critically praised JazzDance, was co-produced by Sankovich and also features Adler. “I’m hoping the musicians will get into how we communicate musically and what does it mean to comp,” Brand says, referring accompaniment, which required leaving space and intense listening skills.   “It’s interesting, Rocío’s mother was a psychoanalyst. She’ll be doing a fun exercise evoking different moods with songs.”

Deeply involved in the California Jazz Conservatory, where she serves as chair of the board of directors, Brand is quick to acknowledge that she’s not the first therapist to see jazz as a powerful metaphor for the practice of psychotherapy. The great jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin, a longtime professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, has written and talked extensively about the way improvisation is an essential aspect of both disciplines.

“Denny has a wonderful quote about suspending judgment and listening deeply,” Brand says. “That’s what your role is in therapy, to listen, to know when to sit back and when to go forward, to hear how you can guide them, which is often a pianist’s role in an ensemble.”

Larry Ochs, a founding member of the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, performs at the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space Friday at 8 p.m. Photo: courtesy Larry Ochs

Berkeley saxophone master Larry Ochs, a founding member of the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, performs at the Berkeley Arts Festival performance space 8 p.m. Friday in Play That Thing Or Throw It Away, which is also known as the Ochs-Johnston-Robair Trio. Devoted to high energy free improvisation, the ensemble brings together Ochs with trumpeter Darren Johnston (who recently played a gorgeous session with pianist Myra Melford and drummer Hamir Atwal at the Maybeck Studio) and percussionist Gino Robair.

Berkeley pianist/vocalist Eric Van James performs with his group at Jupiter on Saturday. The recent winner of the Akademia Music Award for Best Song/Jazz Piano Instrumental, he’s a Berkeley native who has served as conductor with Berkeley’s Kairos Youth Choir. The band he brings to Jupiter features guitarist Vincent Spaulding, bassist Dennis Kong, drummer Robi Bean, and will encompass jazz, blues, old-school R&B and some Van James originals.

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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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....