The last time Perla Batalla performed in Berkeley it was July 11, 1988, she was in her early 20s, and had recently joined Leonard Cohen. His album I’m Your Man had come out in February to rapturous reviews, and he arrived at Zellerbach at the start of a North American tour with Batalla and Julie Christensen, two “stylish and mischievous” backup singers, in the words of Sylvie Simmons, author of the superlative biography I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen.
Batalla spent several years on the road with Cohen, and with his support and encouragement she’s evolved into a captivating singer/songwriter in her own right. But for her return to Berkeley 8 p.m. Saturday at Freight & Salvage she decided to celebrate his music with her show “House of Cohen,” a project that grew out of Hal Wilner’s 2003 Cohen tribute concert “Came So Far For Beauty.”
Cohen himself recruited her for that project, and she ended up recording an exquisite album exploring his music, Bird On the Wire: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (Mechuda Music). “At first I didn’t understand that he wanted me to sing lead,” Batalla says from her home in Ojai. “I couldn’t fathom singing lead, but he was very encouraging and it was an amazing experience.”
One way she’s put her personal stamp on Cohen’s songs is by translating several into Spanish (such as “Dance Me to the End of Love”), which both taps into her roots and reflects Cohen’s love of the language.
“Very few people know that he’s obsessed with the Spanish language,” Batalla says. “He feels like it’s the language that gets to the heart of things, and was obsessed with Lorca as a young writer. Like water, it flows and goes very deep. When we were on the road he asked me to translate for him in Spanish speaking countries when he’d talk to the audience.”
Batalla wasn’t familiar with Cohen when she got the call for an audition in 1988. She had one day to prepare, so she went to Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard and bought every album of his she could find. She quickly realized he was a major artist and she was “lucky to be introduced to him whether or not I got the gig,” she says. She also got an immediate vision of what she should wear to the audition. “When I listened to his poetry, everything became white, so I showed up to the audition completely in white, and Leonard Cohen was dressed completely in black. We both just laughed.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Batalla started to reclaim her musical birthright as an adult. Her mother grew up in Argentina and her father was a Mexican-born mariachi singer. The family owned a record store focusing on Latin American music, Discoteca Batalla, but she rejected her musical heritage as a teenager, an age when “you completely negate and ignore everything you grow up with,” she says.
She left home at 17 and started supporting herself as a singer taking jazz and pop gigs, though she found a lucrative niche singing country music. “In LA if you went to country bars they had contests where you could sing a song and win a few hundred bucks,” she recalls. “I did that and paid my bills. I quickly realized that if I sang a country song in Spanish no one could compete with me.”
She started writing her own songs while touring with Cohen, who consistently supported and encouraged her efforts. On albums like Mestiza, Heaven and Earth, and What I Did on My Summer Vacation (co-commissioned by Cal State Monterey Bay), she’s become an award-winning songwriter who has honed a singular blend of jazz, folk, rock and Latin American influences. Hopefully she’ll be back soon to sing her own material, but Cohen’s music couldn’t be in better hands.
“His songs mean so much to me and changed my life in so many great ways,” Batalla says. “Any time I can do a retrospective of his music it’s so fun.”
Recommended Berkeley gigs: Vinny Golia / Judy Wexler
Multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia has been an essential creative force on the Southern California improvised music scene for more than four decades. In celebration of his 70th birthday some 70 Bay Area musicians are joining with Golia 8 p.m. Saturday at the Finnish Kaleva Hall to manifest a special incarnation of the Vinny Golia Large Ensemble. Presented by Outsound, this singular gathering brims with players ideally suited to explore Golia’s roiling, incident-filled soundscapes, which mix composition and free improvisation. He’s performed the music internationally, but has forged particularly deep ties in the Bay Area.
He traces the birth of the project to a 1981 grant, which provided the opportunity to bring to together Southland musicians whose paths wouldn’t otherwise cross. “I had this idea to create this large ensemble that would be a melting pot for some of the contemporary classical players, some of the straight ahead jazz guys, and then some of these guys who were playing more free music. Because Los Angeles isn’t like New York, there are all these geographic areas and there are really good players in each area and nothing was tying them together, so I would go play in one group and they wouldn’t know people from another group I was playing in. We did the first concert in 1982 at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall with 14 guys and I’ve kept it together since then.”
As if Saturday night wasn’t already full of musical promise, Los Angeles jazz vocalist Judy Wexler, a smart and consistently engaging performer with a beguiling repertoire, returns to the California Jazz Conservatory. Performing with pianist Adam Shulman, drummer Jason Lewis and bassist Adam Gay, she brings her incisive wit and supple sense of time to a diverse repertoire drawing from the likes of Sonny Rollins, King Pleasure, Louis Armstrong, Freddie Hubbard, Blossom Dearie, Richie Havens, Paul Simon and Harry Nilsson. She also teaches a CJC workshop “Making and Marketing Your CD” on Sunday afternoon
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.
Berkeleyside’s Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas is two days of provocative thinking, inspiring speakers, workshops, and a big party — all in downtown Berkeley in October. Read all about it, be part of it. Register on the Uncharted website.