As a rambunctious child with a precocious feel for rhythm, Ruthie Price saw any available surface as a potential piece of percussion
“I was beating around on everything and broke a coffee table at five,” she admits. “At church I’d sit by the drums. My foster mom bought me a kit at six, and I’ve been playing drums ever.”
Now the Oakland-raised Price is one of the region’s premiere drummers, a player sought out by singer/songwriters, jazz ensembles, R&B combos and various genre-blending permutations thereof. She’s provided an array of beats for Rhonda Benin’s annual Just Like a Woman revue at Freight & Salvage, and propelled Fantastic Negrito to his career-making January 2015 triumph in NPR’s first Tiny Desk Concert Contest.
But these days she’s putting as much energy into developing her own music as she is into accompanying other acts. Price presents her Sounds of Life ensemble 8 p.m. Friday at the California Jazz Conservatory, a band featuring Berkeley native Maya Kronfeld on piano, bassist Aneesa Al-Musawwir (a.k.a. Aneesa Strings), and vocalist Viveca Hawkins, a graduate of Berkeley High who fronts Mars Volta drummer Thomas Pridgen’s stripped down garage band The Memorials
“Maya and I have been playing gigs together since we were 13 years old,” says Price, who also performs with Brooklyn singer/songwriter and Broadway veteran Gina Breedlove at Yoshi’s on Dec. 5. “We’re playing some arrangements of standards and a couple of originals, one of Maya’s and one of Viveca’s. The music is jazzy and soulful. We wanted to combine the two, so there’s definitely a little soul in there.”
Price credits a succession of jazz mentors with guiding her musical development. Throughout her years at Bret Harte Middle School and Skyline High she played regularly at jam sessions led by pianist Ed Kelly and drum maestro Donald “Duck” Bailey (“his pocket was so soulful and funky, I got that from him,” she says). Trumpeter Khalil Shaheed brought her into the Oaktown Jazz Workshop, and she took lessons with Jeff Marrs at the Jazzschool, while also studying European classical music with the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra. “And I was still playing in church through all of this,” she says. Experiencing women at the top of the percussion profession made a powerful impression too.
“I saw Cindy Blackman, and Sheila E playing with Pete Escovedo when I was young,” Price says. “Cindy is one of main influences. I’m so inspired when I see her. And I’m addicted to Cora Coleman-Dunham,” who spent years supplying irrepressible grooves for Prince.
Sisterhood played a key role in her relationship with Kronfeld. They got to know each other well in high school, when they roomed together at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, and started their professional lives together. “We have some shared memories of my father taking us to gigs together, trying to get the drums and keyboards to fit into one car,” says Kronfeld, who divides her time between music and pursuing a PhD in comparative literature at UC Berkeley.
After Kronfeld graduated from College Prep she went on to study comparative lit at UC Berkeley, while cutting her teeth on the Bay Area scene with Zoe and David Ellis. Price spent several years playing in Washington DC, and then moved to Los Angeles, where she studied at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood and landed a gig with Van Hunt. She spent some five years touring internationally and recording with the Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter, and after moving back to the Bay Area brought Kronfeld into the Van Hunt fold. They got to know each other as adults driving down to Los Angeles every weekend for the gig.
Rather than waiting to get hired, they’ve been creating their own musical situations, like Price’s trio Witches Brew, which debuted at Oakland’s Musically Minded Academy in February with special guests singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Melanie Charles and Berkeley High alum vocalist Valerie Troutt. For Friday’s show, they’re working with another powerhouse singer from Berkeley, Viveca Hawkins, “who I’ve known since we were in high school,” Kronfeld says. “We were in the first band I ever joined, a salsa jazz fusion band with bassist Raul Perales. She was a seasoned singer who could do it all at 14.”
With work on her dissertation heating up, Kronfeld is increasingly picking her spots musically, focusing on her deepest musical connections. That means playing with Price whenever she gets the chance.
“Something powerful happens when we play together,” Kronfeld says. “She has the expansiveness of a drummer rooted in the jazz tradition, with a really powerful sense of the polyrhythmic possibilities that entails. I’ve seen how her playing affects people. Something profound happena in the room when she plays. There’s the spiritually, the dance, the joy, the groove, the playfulness, the stuff that kids are going to want to hear and that the elders hear and know the music is in good hands.”
Recommended gig: ‘Memories of Fire’
Like a composer seeking a new form to create previously unheard music, Eduardo Galeano invented a new literary genre with his landmark trilogy Memory of Fire. Best known for his stirring leftist polemic Open Veins of Latin America (and his brilliant soccer journalism), the Uruguayan writer set out to chart an alternative history of the Americas. Published in the mid-1980s, Memory of Fire recast the fateful Columbian encounter by compiling creation stories, mythologies, gossip, historical vignettes, songs and other overlooked sources to create a literary mosaic of life just before and after Spain and Portugal started colonizing the New World.
Neither history, fiction nor poetry, Memory of Fire serves as a point of departure for an ambitious project by another genre-warping artist eager to explore new forms, jazz pianist Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret. Inspired by text gleaned from the trilogy’s first volume, Genesis, the award-winning composer created a hypnotic non-narrative multi-media production Language of Dreams, which Cal Performances presents at Zellerbach Hall 8 p.m. Saturday. Laced with earthy blues and propulsive Afro-Cuban rhythms, post-bop improvisation and pithy melodies, Language of Dreams premiered in 2013 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Featuring her long-time comrade Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar, guitarist Liberty Ellman, cornetist Ron Miles, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, the quintet won the Jazz Journalists Association award for Midsize Ensemble of the Year in June. The group often performs as a unit, but for Language of Dreams it’s augmented by video projections by Bay Area artist David Szlasa, butoh-inspired movement by Los Angeles-based dancer/choreographer Oguri, and narrator Sofia Rei, a New York-based Argentine jazz vocalist who recites Galeano’s text in Spanish and English. Members of Snowy Egret, Oguri, and Szlasa convene 3–4:30 p.m. Friday in 125 Morrison Hall for a Composer Colloquium discussion about the process of creating and performing Language of Dreams.
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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