Pioneering jazz cellist Mark Summer plays his first East Bay post-Turtle Island concert Sunday at Freight & Salvage. Photo by Peter Serling.
Mark Summer. Photo: Peter Serling

Cuban reed virtuoso Paquito D’Rivera likes to call Mark Summer a barking cat, which is actually a compliment. As a cellist well-versed in improvisation, Summer is as rare as a woofing feline, though his three-decade run with two-time Grammy Award-winning Turtle Island Quartet has paved the way for several generations of conservatory-trained cellists with at least one foot in jazz. In his first East Bay concert since leaving Turtle Island in 2015 Summer introduces his new duo with veteran jazz pianist Ken Cook, Celloland, 7 p.m. Sunday at Freight & Salvage.

D’Rivera got to know Summer well while collaborating on the 2002 Turtle Island String Quartet album Danzón (Koch International), back before the group dropped “string” from its name. He was so impressed with Summer’s skills and versatility that he launched the Jazz Chamber Trio, a group “that I wouldn’t have thought possible before meeting Mark,” D’Rivera said in an interview around the time of the group’s Grammy-nominated 2005 eponymous debut album on Chesky.

Celloland offers another opportunity for Summer to explore his love of jazz and Latin American music. Cook, who holds the Jazz Piano chair in Sonoma State University’s Jazz Studies Department and has studied in Cuba, works regularly with vocalists Terrie Odabi and Deborah Winters, Brazilian guitarist Ricardo Peixoto, and Latin jazz flutist John Calloway. Together they’ve developed a far-ranging repertoire at the crossroads of jazz, European classical music and various South American traditions, with tunes by Brazil’s Egberto Gismonti and Pixinguinha, Argentina’s Nuevo tango maestro Astor Piazzolla, and jazz greats Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett (with some Jimi Hendrix and J.S. Bach thrown in for good measure).

“Ken is a very sympathetic musical partner,” says Summer, 58, who settled in Novato after several years in Berkeley in the mid-aughts. “I heard him with his trio a few years ago and was blown away. We started talking and quickly realized we shared a love of Keith Jarrett and Latin music.”

Mark Summer and Ken Cook are the duo Celloland. Photo: Silos Napa

Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, Summer played some guitar and drums in high school rock bands, but focused intently enough on cello that he ended up earning a degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music. He landed a spot in the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and held the position for three years, “but I was just miserable,” he says. “It was difficult for my psyche. I guess I wanted to improvise on the cello. I had been in a rock band and improvised on guitar, and I got the idea I wanted to be a jazz cellist.”

Like so many young people of his generation he was introduced to jazz by pianist Vince Guaraldi’s intoxicating scores for a succession of Peanuts television specials, “music that distilled the essence of Bill Evans voicings and pop music,” he says. But in the early 1970s jazz cello barely existed. Fred Katz introduced the instrument to jazz with Chico Hamilton’s popular 1950s quintet, but almost no one followed in his footsteps and he found steadier work as a film composer and professor of ethnic music, anthropology and religion.

The great bassist Sam Jones made several recordings on cello, and cellist Abdul Wadud was an essential part of New York’s avant garde loft scene in the 1970s and 80s, but as Summer was growing up there was nowhere to study jazz on the instrument. He was so eager to connect with someone who could mentor him on jazz cello that he contacted Edgar Lustgarden, who was recording with pianist Roger Kellaway’s Cello Quartet. “But when I called him up and explained what I was looking for he said you should understand that I wasn’t improvising on those recordings, so I gave up the search for a little bit.”

While looking to escape from the Winnipeg Symphony he happened to meet Bay Area violinist Darol Anger at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. A few weeks later he got a call from Anger and violinist David Balakrishnan about joining a new group combining the rigor and precision of a classical chamber ensemble with the rhythmic drive and improvisational imperative of a jazz combo. Turtle Island invented a panoply of techniques in order to play jazz as a string quartet, and Summer was often responsible for the bass role, propelling the band and providing a harmonic foundation.

“From my standpoint there was a strong need to make everything groove, and I was holding down the low end,” he says. “I’d think about rhythmic textures. A lot of the techniques I needed to make up had to do with the music itself, like playing a Tower of Power tune that was drum heavy and being willing to do just about anything to make it happen. Darol invented all that chopping stuff, and we all had an incredible devotion to the groove.”

Berkeley violinist Irene Sazer was an early member of Turtle Island who recorded as the violist on the band’s 1988 self-named debut album on Windham Hill Jazz. As the leader of the Real Vocal String Quartet, an ensemble that’s featured a succession of cellists eager to improvise, she credits him with paving the way.

“Mark was the first to have the kind of facility and head for jazz in a string quartet,” she says. “He can really move and dance, whether playing pizzicato or bow. He loves loves loves Vince Guaraldi, and would often sit down at pianos and play those tunes. Even at the beginning he had so much facility and he already had a jazz mind.”

These days he’s starting to connect more with his classical background, while teaching conservatory trained cellists some of the percussion techniques he developed in Turtle Island. One of the biggest challenges is convincing classical players to take risks and play something they haven’t honed to perfection.

“It’s very scary to leave the page for a lot of people,” he says. “I remember when Turtle Island got together with Yo-Yo Ma, we convinced him to take a solo on ‘Stolen Moments’ and when we tried to coax him to take another one he refused. No one wants to look foolish. Everyone wants to look their best. But in jazz the whole point is to take those risks.”

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.

Mark Bittman, Michael Krasny, the Acoustic Guitar Project, Mix’d Ingrdnts dancers, a TCHO chocolate lab and much much more at this year’s Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas, produced by Berkeleyside. Register at BerkeleyIdeas.com

Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....