Amidst the ongoing debate over development in Berkeley there’s one kind of density that everyone should celebrate. I’m talking about the critical mass of creativity that can found almost any given night within half a mile of Shattuck and University. Or even within one block. On Sunday afternoon veteran drummer Alan Hall celebrates the release of his new Ratatet album Arctic (Ridgeway Records) at the California Jazz Conservatory, where he’s a founding faculty member, and later in the evening Berkeley’s Eric, Suzy and Allegra Thompson celebrate the release of their album Thompsonia at Freight & Salvage.
Hall performs with his Ratatet, a sextet featuring Berkeley-raised bassoonist Paul Hanson, trombonist John Gove, vibraphonist Dillon Vado, keyboardist Greg Sankovich, and Jeff Denson on electric and acoustic bass and vocals. Focusing on Hall’s original compositions, the band plays beautifully textured electro-acoustic music laced with arresting sonorities.
Best known as an educator and first-call accompanist who has worked and recorded with an impressive array of vocalists and instrumentalists, Hall realized he needed to document his own music when various life transitions led to a surge in composing. “I didn’t write for quite some time, but around of my older son’s junior year in high school the tunes started flowing out of me,” says Hall, a San Jose native who spent decades Oakland before recently moving up to Sebastopol.
Initially he formed Electreo with Denson and Hanson (playing bassoon with effects), and then built Rata-tet by expanding on the trio. “I needed to meet the right guys,” he says. “I’m always thinking about playing with various people, and you start sorting out personalities, abilities, personal taste. Eventually had a list of characters in my mind. Dillon was a student of mine at the CJC, and he’s a fantastic musician. And Paul Hanson is such an original.”
The album is the second release on Denson’s recently launched Ridgeway Records, part of a non-profit organization Ridgeway Arts, following last year’s designed to bolster Bay Area artists and project them onto the national scene. The label got off to a strong start last year with Jeff Denson Trio plus Lee Konitz, featuring Hall and pianist Dan Zemelman (the trio followed the release with a European tour with Konitz, a bona fide jazz legend who’s still going strong at 88).
Hall returns to the CJC on March 14 with Azesu featuring Venezuelan-born vocalist Maria Marquez, pianist Jonathan Alford, bassist David Pinto, percussionist Omar Ledezma, and reed expert Sheldon Brown. The improvisation-steeped band plays an array of songs from Venezuela, Cuba, Peru, and Brazil, as well as originals.
“I’m influenced by South American rhythms, and that’s going deep into it,” Hall says. “I also do a fair amount of work with singers. I know how to be very quite and stay out of the way. But I’m saying no to gigs more often these days. The older I get the more picky I’m becoming.”
For a glorious example of what can happen when a musician says yes, look no further than Thompsonia, which unites Eric and Suzy Thompson, frequent musical collaborators and partners in marriage and parenthood, with their daughter, bassist, guitarist and vocalist Allegra Thompson. Growing up in Berkeley Allegra was inundated with old-time and Cajun music, blues and bluegrass, but it wasn’t until her early 20s and out of the house that she gravitated to playing the music herself (she’s a member of the Midnite Ramblers, a band dedicated to traditional Cajun and Creole music). The result of her musical rapprochement with her parents is a concise album of 10 songs marked by gorgeous vocals, tight arrangements and seriously fun lyrics that leave you wanting more.
“We’ve been doing the music thing for the last five years with Allegra and it’s killer fun,” says Suzy. “What’s so great is if Eric and I are playing with Allegra, she’ll just dive in. She knows exactly where the beats going to be, and singing with her I’ve never experienced that kind of hand in glove blend. It’s just really really fun.”
Thompsonia opens the concert, followed by Blue Diamond Strings featuring bassist Paul Knight, vocalist Kate Brislin, and old-time multi-instrumental great Jody Stecher (who produced Thompsonia). Various Blue Diamonds will joins Thompsonia during the first set, as well as other special guests like fiddler Paul Shelasky.
Not surprisingly, Thompsonia is just one of several gigs featuring the Thompsons together and separately in the coming weeks. David Nelson and Eric Thompson play Studio 55 Marin on Feb. 5 (and an Oakland house concert on Feb. 7). And Allegra plays bass and sings with bluegrass singer/songwriter Wendy Burch Steel at the Monkey House 7 p.m. Feb. 5.
All three Thompsons will be on hand performing with the Aux Cajunals at Ashkenaz on Feb. 9 for a Mardi Gras double bill with the Tri Tip Trio Zydeco Band, a gig that’s turned into a carnival tradition.
“The last three or four years we’ve had a big dance at Ashkenaz with the Aux Cajunals and Tri Tip Trio where we do a little parade around the club,” Suzy says. “I’ve been making Cajun-style Mardi Gras costumes for the band members. People might have seen them on Treme. They’re not like New Orelans costumes with beads. They’re kind of like clown suits with fringes. I’m not that good with sewing, but I wield a mean hot-glue gun.”
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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