Any Bay Area music fan with adventuresome ears has likely come across trumpeter Darren Johnston some time in the past two decades. Maybe he was playing celebratory Balkan music with Brass Menažeri. Or rough and tumble free jazz with the collective quartet Cylinder. Or Ethio-soul with singer/songwriter Meklit Hadero, chamber world jazz with the Nice Guy Trio, or straight ahead post-bop with Erik Jekabson’s Electric Squeezebox Orchestra. He’s the kind musician who elevates any situation he finds himself in, and for the past several years the Canadian-born Johnston has honed a poetic program of original songs in Broken Shadows, which draws from an unlikely array of traditions and styles.
Johnston preforms with Broken Shadows Friday at the Starry Plough on a double bill with guitarist Alex Hand’s Gypsy jazz-influenced combo. Featuring Johnston on trumpet and vocals, Berkeley violinist Matthew Szemela, pedal-steel guitarist David Phillips, guitarist Jordan Samuels, Miles Wick on bass and vocals, and drummer/percussionist Jordan Glenn, Broken Shadows in less a specific ensemble than a community of players who have embraced Johnston’s supremely catholic sound.
“This band has gone through a lot of incarnations,” Johnston says. “I’m trying to get all of my creative impulses under one roof. I’m trying to avoid fusion music, which to me is you take a little bit of this and that and stick them together. I’m trying to get to something deeper, because I feel like there are aesthetic through lines in terms of intentions between, say, straight ahead jazz and Macedonian brass band music. They touch on a similar truth, and it all filters through me and these musicians.”
Among the most vivid voices enlisted in Broken Shadows is Szemela, who moved to Berkeley from his native Maine in 2011 when he landed a chair in the Berkeley Symphony. He had spent several years working in New York City and was immediately struck by the Bay Area music scene’s welcoming vibe. The fact that he’s equally formidable in a wide array of settings made him an avidly sought after collaborator, and he quickly joined several singular ensembles.
A first-call studio player who records frequently at Skywalker Sound, Szemela is a member of violinist Jeremy Cohen’s chamber jazz ensemble Quartet San Francisco, and performs regularly with Rupa Marya (in a string version of her band Rupa and the April Fishes). He and April Fishes cellist Misha Khalikulov will also perform Hungarian folk songs with vocalist Zina Bozzay’s Vadalma at Le Bateau Ivre on Sept. 14. Given Szemela’s far-flung musical interests it’s not surprising that he’d be drawn to Broken Shadows, and like Johnston he’s not keen on describing the songs as “fusion” music.
“It implies you’re going to be able to tell this is two or three different ideas or backgrounds coming together,” says Szemela, who also contributes vocals in the band. “It’s a lot more subtle than that. All these different styles and backgrounds are dialects of the same language, and a constant thread goes through all of this. What Darren creates is this forum where I get to speak in a lot of different dialects and join it with my own voice.”
The band’s name is borrowed from a tune by Ornette Coleman, a piece that isn’t in the Broken Shadows repertoire. Johnston hopes to include it someday (along with a Coleman tune recorded at the same 1971 sessions, “What Reason Could I Give?”).
“At first it seemed an apt name as bits and pieces of various influences found their way into the sound,” Johnston says. “And later it continued to feel apt as a network of musicians from disparate musical worlds began to forge relationships with each other through this book of music – a collection of broken shadows, as it were.”
Born and raised in Ontario, Johnston moved to San Francisco in 1997 and made himself an indispensable creative force on the improv music scene as a player steeped in the jazz tradition but eager to explore territory outside mainstream parameters. In the days following Friday’s Broken Shadows gig, he plays in several stellar ensembles, including the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra, which returns to its Sunday slot at Doc’s Lab in North Beach on Sept. 4.
On Sept. 10, he presents his new arrangements of Eric Dolphy’s classic 1962 album Far Cry at Oakland’s Musically Minded Academy with trombonist (and Berkeley High alum) Danny Lubin-Laden, and the Broken Shadows rhythm section (guitarist Jordan Samuels, bassist Miles Wick, and drummer/percussionist Jordan Glenn). And he returns to the East Bay on Sept. 16 for Berkeley Arts Museum Presents Full: Scientific, joining bassist/composer Lisa Mezzacappa for the US premiere of Organelle, her composition for improvisers inspired by theories of cell biology, astrophysics, paleontology, and neuroscience.
What sets Broken Shadows apart from all his other musical involvements is that the ensemble features his vocals as much as his horn. In many ways the project harkens back to his earliest musical passion. As a child he spent hours making up songs while playing a beat up old piano in the basement.
“I was obsessed with songwriting and lyric writing,” he recalls. He applied to Interlochen’s creative writing summer program, but ended up getting accepted as a trumpet major. Turned on to first generation jazz avant-gardists like Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, he turned his focus to improvisation and the trumpet, and it wasn’t until about a decade ago working with Meklit Hadero that he started thinking about writing his own songs. At first he tried giving his originals to singers, but soon decided that he needed to interpret the songs himself, and he’s worked doggedly for years to hone his vocals.
Concentrating on his singing has improved his trumpet playing, and now he’s at a point where he’s comfortable with other singers interpreting his tunes too. He recorded two albums worth of material earlier this year with an impressive cast of players, songs that introduce an artist with a sound and lyrical sensibility all his own.
“I’m not a huge fan of American Songbook lyrics,” he says. “I’m not sure how audible the influences are, but I love Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. Nick Drake has been an influence, and in the last few years I’ve become a huge fan of Townes Van Zandt. I like the songwriters who can place you somewhere and tell you a story.”
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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