Scanning the February music listings it seems like Berkeley has become the western-most neighborhood of Brooklyn, with a steady stream of exceptional improvisational ensembles performing in intimate settings.
Last week, the Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet played a breathtaking set at the California Jazz Conservatory. On Sunday percussionist Ches Smith returns to the Bay Area with his trio featuring pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri for a concert at the Berkeley Arts Festival space, where trombonist Ryan Keberle makes his Bay Area debut as a bandleader with Catharsis on Tuesday (as part of a double bill with Berkeley clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg‘s group featuring alto saxophonist Kasey Knudsen and drummer Hamir Atwal).
What these three groups have in common, aside from residing in New York City, is that they’ve all forged intensely distinctive group sounds employing unorthodox instrumentation. Smith, who lived in Albany for a decade, earned a graduate degree from Mills and describes formative experiences catching concerts at the lamented downtown Berkeley venue Beanbenders, moves unpredictably between trap set, percussion and vibraphone, giving his compositions a different inflection with each performance.
Drawing on an array of South American rhythms, Keberle’s pianoless Catharsis is built around the interplay between the twin axes of brass and rhythm section. Featuring trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, drummer Eric Doob, and Peruvian-born bassist Jorge Roeder (who might be familiar to Bay Area audiences through his work with North Bay-raised guitar prodigy Julian Lage), the group recently expanded by adding Chilean vocalist Camila Meza (whose gorgeous debut album on Sunnyside, Traces, comes out on Feb. 26).
“I love not having a chordal instrument,” Keberle says. “It really raises the listener’s awareness of what’s gong on. It might seem like if you remove piano or guitar that it makes the music harder to follow harmonically, but sometimes I think that clutter makes it difficult to listen to jazz. Remove those chords and it simplifies the sonic experience.”
What makes Catharsis such an enthralling ensemble is the combination of exquisitely crafted melodies and intuitive rhythmic cohesion. Rodriguez possesses a beautiful burnished tone, and he and Keberle have played together in dozens of different ensembles, including the trombonist’s earlier Double Quartet. He found the perfect rhythm section tandem playing on a gig led by the tango-inspired Argentine pianist Emilio Solla. Keberle had already recorded with Doob, a rising force in New York best known for his extensive work with Paquito D’Rivera and Miguel Zenón, but hearing the drummer with Roeder was a revelation.
“One song into the gig and I knew this is the guy,” Keberle says. “Not only the way he played, his versatility, but more importantly the way he and Eric played together. They had a connection that you can’t force, a natural affinity, and a similar approach to rhythm and time. They both approached the music as an arranger, creating storyline within each song.”
On her own projects Meza is a skilled guitarist who focuses on original material. After several people mentioned that his music seemed to call for a vocal presence, Keberle recruited her, impressed by her gift for “creating shape and drama and storyline with the music,” he says. With her deep affinity for Brazilian music, she fit perfectly into the Catharsis concept.
The group is touring the West Coast in conjunction with the release of a gorgeous new album Azul Infinito (Greenleaf Music), which features Keberle’s compositions inspired by artists such as Argentine bassist Pedro Giraudo, Colombian percussionist Samuel Torres, and Brazilian pianist/pop star Ivan Lins. Like many of his peers in New York (and the Bay Area for that matter), Keberle is working on a synthesis of jazz and Latin American music that has little to do with what’s commonly called Latin jazz, which draws primarily on Afro-Cuban rhythms.
“There is this celebration of this new wave of Latino musicians coming up to New York from all over the Southern hemisphere,” Keberle says. “We don’t have another term to describe what they’re doing yet, since Latin jazz really means something else. It’s a different thing. Camila’s music falls into that. The music is very song-like, and that’s where I’m coming from as a composer.”
So why is Berkeley seeing this influx of New York artists? Mainly because there are so few other options. The CJC is doing an amazing job of presenting our resident masters and young talent alongside traveling musicians, while the Berkeley Arts Festival continues to serve as an essential outpost for adventurous music (Conjure! A third-Thursday series curated by violinist India Cooke and saxophonist Lewis Jordan, returns on Feb. 18). Sadly, Yoshi’s is presenting less edgy jazz than ever, though trumpeter Dave Douglas, the visionary who created the Greenleaf Music label that releases Keberle’s CDs, plays the club with his quintet on Feb. 22. The SFJAZZ Center is presenting a lot of great touring acts in the Joe Henderson Lab, but can’t cover all the bases.
The most exciting thing about these Berkeley gigs is that they’re working ensembles, not a big name leader picking up a band that’s just getting acquainted with the music. Guitarist Rez Abbasi was able to bring his Acoustic Quartet to Berkeley because a concert in Arcata presented by the Redwood Jazz Alliance covered the band’s expenses getting to California. Keberle’s Bay Area stay is anchored by a Cal State East Bay workshop arranged by Mitch Butler, the school’s director of jazz studies.
Keberle has performed in the area with two of the celebrated bands he’s been part of for years, playing Stanford last October with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, and Zellerbach Hall in 2011 with the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra (he also played the Paramount in 2010 as part of Sufjan Stevens’ band). “Bay Area gigs are few and far between,” Keberle says. “This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.”
Recommended gigs: Miss Faye Carol, Terrence Brewer, Beth Custer
Noting the numerous out-of-town musicians playing in town doesn’t mean neglecting our resident masters. The Dynamic Miss Faye Carol lights the love lamp a day early with a Valentine’s concert 7 p.m. Saturday at the Berkeley Piano Club with pianist Joe Warner. Guitarist Terrence Brewer plays Jupiter on Friday with organist Tim Campbell and drummer Micah McClain (who plays on Brewer’s excellent new album Setting the Standard: Volume Four-The TB3). And clarinetist/composer/vocalist Beth Custer celebrates the release of her album The Beth Custer Ensemble at Freight & Salvage 8 p.m. Wednesday. Featuring new arrangements of compositions commissioned by dance companies and fabulous covers of tunes by Paolo Conte, Nelson Cavaquinho, and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, the album features Custer’s excellent cast of players, including trumpeter Chris Grady, drummer Jan Jackson, bassist Vicky Grossi, former Jefferson Starship vocalist Diana Mangano, and guitarist David James (who’s got a fantastic album of his own coming out, Billionaire Blues).
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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