The Berkeley-raised bassist was establishing himself as a top-shelf New York freelancer about four years ago when he got a call from a Bay Area acquaintance, San Francisco-reared pianist/accordionist Sam Reider. Reider and his musical partner, guitarist Justin Poindexter, were expanding their combo Tres Amigos, which had honed a singular sound drawing on bluegrass and western swing, Gulf Coast grooves and jazz. Now known as Silver City Bound (“We got tired of people thinking it’s a Mexican music band,” Reider says), the quartet makes its Berkeley debut at 7 p.m. Sunday at Freight & Salvage (they also perform Saturday at the Stanford Jazz Festival with special guest Ben Flocks on tenor saxophone).
In many ways the band started to fully realize its potential in 2013, when the U.S. State Department selected the Amigos as cultural ambassadors, which led to a six-week tour of China, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. Interacting with local musicians as much as possible, the band found its wide open aesthetic made it possible to trade tunes and jam with wildly divergent artists. In Cambodia, they connected “with a classical Khmer group, these great musicians with a tradition that uses some improvisation,” says Garabedian, 31. “It was mostly strings and flutes and zithers and some percussion and vocals. Each song painted a cinematic soundscape of a bizarre western movie. We’d play a slow blues, and out of nowhere these zithers and flutes would pop up.
“In China we learned a really popular folk song called ‘Jasmin Flower,’ or ‘Mo Li Hua,’” Garabedian continues. “We thought it kind of sounded like ‘Wildwood Flower’ by the Carter family, so we did a mashup of those two songs and sang the lyrics in English. Where ever we go the music has influenced us, and the process of collaboration has influenced us.”
Always open to new musical directions, the band has also collaborated with a disparate cast of American luminaries who highlight different facets of the their musical interests, like singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale and yodeling cowboy Ranger Doug. Singer-songwriter Nellie McKay’s quirky irony took them in a different direction. And they found an avid champion in the supremely cosmopolitan composer, French hornist and multi-instrumentalist David Amram, whose career encompasses recordings with Kenny Dorham, Dizzy Gillespie, Jack Kerouac, Willie Nelson, Langston Hughes, Pete Seeger, and Leonard Bernstein. On the Amigos’ first album, 2014’s Diner in the Sky, Amram, now 85, tells the story of meeting Woody Guthrie on one track and contributes on various whistles on others.
“We met him at a folk festival about five years ago and he became a mentor,” Reider says. “That launched a couple of years where we toured with him. His mentality, that incredible openness, is what keeps us going on this project.”
In May, the group was slated to perform in Azerbaijan, and parlayed the trip into an opportunity to collaborate with Syrian and Kurdish refugees in Turkey, an experience that deepened the band’s sense of mission. “I see that as the only artistic and spiritual way forward,” Reider says. “The genres are disintegrating around us. It doesn’t matter what label you fit into anymore. I find it more interesting to have a global understanding, and try to stress that American music is this big tree of different influences, the West African banjo, the European lute, Afro-Cuban clave.”
For Garabedian, Silver City Bound has provided a perfect forum for his far-flung musical interests. He graduated from Berkeley High in 2003 and as a teenager studied with bass expert Glenn Richman, who deepened his interested in jazz (his younger brother, Oakland-based saxophonist Rafi Garabedian, is also a product of the Berkeley High jazz program). By his senior year, he was good enough to land the bass chair in the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars, which featured future New York standouts such as saxophonist Pat Carroll, the twin brothers Pascal and Remy LeBoeuf (on piano and saxophone, respectively), and fellow Berkeley High bandmate Billy Buss on trumpet.
Enrolled at UCLA, he pursued various interests, and ended up majoring in ethnomusicology. He played in big band led by guitar legend Kenny Burrell, and the Contemporary Jazz Large Ensemble, a student-run band founded by saxophonist and Berkeley High grad Hitomi Oba. While initially he supported himself working at a restaurant, by his senior year he was gigging regularly. A life as a professional musician seemed to beckon, and after five years in LA he moved to Brooklyn. He continues to freelance with some of New York’s top jazz musicians, and released an excellent debut album Big Butter and Egg Man (Bjurecords) in 2014 featuring a talent-laden young sextet. but Silver City Bound always presents fresh and surprising hybrids.
“It’s been a real joy to just explore different styles of music that I wasn’t familiar with,” says Garabedian, who’s been playing with Ravi Coltrane lately. “But the great thing about Silver City Bound is that everybody is so interested in music from around the world. I can really flex my ethnomusicology muscles. It was originally a hybrid of country and zydeco, African music, and South American music with the accordion, but it’s continued to grow from there. Every time we do these collaborations on a State Department tour, where we do their music and they do ours, it’s like a Paul Simon or Ry Cooder album.”
Recommended gigs: Democratoz at The Back Room
The U.S. State Department doesn’t just send American musicians abroad. It also brings artists here, like Democratoz, a rhythmically charged band from Oran Algeria that plays The Back Room on Wednesday, Aug. 3 at 8 p.m.. Touring as part of Center Stage, a cultural exchange program initiated by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and produced by the New England Foundation for the Arts, Democratoz combines reggae, raï and rock, with songs that speak about rebellious youth, drug abuse, and the dangerous search for opportunity via migration.
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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