The Real Vocal String Quartet  — violinist Irene Sazer, five-string violinist Sumaia Jackson, cellist Vanessa Ruotolo, and violinist Adrianna Ciccone — play a benefit for Syrian refugees Thursday, May 11, at Freight & Salvage with True Life Trio, percussionist Faisal Zedan, and guitarist Justin King. Photo: Lenny Gonzalez

Troubled times call for extraordinary music, and Irene Sazer knows where to find it. The Berkeley violinist/vocalist has thrived in ensembles that gleefully ignore stylistic parameters, from her founding role in Turtle Island String Quartet through her own stylistically encompassing Real Vocal String Quartet. The dire events of last year inspired her to start producing concerts that push back against the darkness, and Sazer presents her most ambitious event yet Thursday, May 11, at Freight & Salvage.

Long distressed by the relentless drumbeat of horrific news from the Middle East, Sazer decided to take action “when there was the horrible crisis in Aleppo,” she says. “Seeing the news night after night was heartbreaking. And I couldn’t believe what I was seeing in the election. I needed to do something.”

A benefit for Syrian refugees (via Islamic Relief USA), Thursday’s concert features the Real Vocal String Quartet, True Life Trio, Lebanese-born, Syrian-raised Bay Area percussion master Faisal Zedan, and finger-style guitar wizard Justin King. Though King performed as a solo opening act for stars like Diana Krall, James Taylor, Al Green and BB King, and led a rock band, the Apologies, that toured widely after signing with Epic, Sazer discovered the guitarist through her two kids, “who revere him,” she says.

“He’s a badass, just a monster technically, but his music is really heart felt. We’d become Facebook friends and I saw him making the kind of posts I was making, and we were liking each other’s posts. We sort of became buddies in the resistance. I thought, why not ask him to play the Freight with us?”

Sazer started presenting monthly benefit concerts in her home studio, where she also holds the Berkeley Music and Art Camp and Creative String Chamber Camp every summer. All of the proceeds from each concert go to an organization named by the featured artist (next up is singer/songwriter Tamsen Fynn, who leads the women’s singing circle class at the Freight, on June 24). But Thursday’s concert is exponentially bigger, a talent-laden program bringing together nine artists who have parlayed an abiding passion for traditional music into cross-cultural explorations.

Over the past decade Sazer’s Real Vocal String Quartet has featured an extraordinary array of musicians on a series of recordings, most recently 2016’s Slacker Ridge, a stylistically unfettered six-song EP that moves seamlessly from the Appalachian standard “Cluck Old Hen” to Sazer’s sumptuous ballad “I Keep You Safe.” The RVSQ reached its widest audience after the Canadian singer/songwriter Feist brought the band down to Big Sur to collaborate with her on her acclaimed 2011 album Metals (Polydor).

The quartet’s latest incarnation includes violinist Adrianna Ciccone, cellist Vanessa Ruotolo, and five-string violinist Sumaia Jackson (who returns to the Freight May 31 touring with banjo player Jayme Stone’s Alan Lomax-inspired project Folklife). Adding to the powerhouse assemblage of women players is True Life Trio, a Kitka spin off that builds on that repertoire of traditional Eastern European and Balkan songs with original songs, and Cajun, Appalachian and even Mexican standards. Singing gorgeous three-part harmonies, Leslie Bonnett (voice, fiddle, percussion), Briget Boyle (voice, guitar, percussion) and Juliana Graffagna (voice, bass, percussion) create an improvisation-laced sound that’s raucously playful, achingly beautiful, and consistently surprising.

“We’re all connected through the Bay Area scene and conceptually,” Sazer says. “True Life Trio does music from all over the world, and so does Real Vocal String Quartet. Selfishly I want more rich experiences as a person and musician, but now more than ever, exceptionalism, isolationism is not the way to make the world a healthier and happier place. I want to do my part as a global citizen.”

In many ways, Justin King has taken the pursuit of global citizenship to extremes. When his rock band’s debut album for Epic got lost in label management changes (“All the new president cared about was Shakira and Jessica Simpson,” he says), the Apologies put the album out themselves. Burned out on the music business, he turned his attention to photo journalism and ended up embedding with US troops in Iraq for a month in 2008. He returned for another month-long stint the following year, contributing photo essays to the BBC Online, and also covered Haiti’s 201o election and the cholera outbreak for the website.

“I got really hooked on that kind of work,” King says. “I’m interested in war and conflict and politics, and wanted to see if I could shed some light on these difficult situations. But I wasn’t in it long enough to figure out how to make a living doing it. I knew some photographers much further down the line, freelancers doing great work who were struggling to make ends meet. Now I’ve been married for a couple of years it’s not something I’m pursuing, though I really do enjoy the whole process. You have to interact with people in such an intense way. You have to work with people to get the story, to communicate and be aware and sensitive to situation.”

In recent years King has channeled his creative energy into a kinetic solo guitar style that’s earned him an avid cult following. A former student of French-Algerian guitarist Pierre Bensusan, he’s developed a highly personal style inspired by players like Michael Hedges and Will Ackerman. While often associated with the percussive tapping technique he’s honed, “it’s but small fraction of my repertoire in terms of finger-style acoustic guitar,” he says.

“I’ve never been a guitar geek. I have loads of respect for so many players who’ve taken what I was doing and Hedges before me much further. It’s really cool, but at the same time, a think sometimes there’s a sacrifice of musicality. I get it. It’s fun and you can dive in so deep and get creative with different tunings and string gauges. But I’m looking for something that moves me, and that comes from somewhere else.”

If you were lucky enough to catch the Dorrance Dance’s March production of “The Blues Project” at YBCA you know all about the power of Toshi Reagon, who supplied the soul-steeped music for the tap extravaganza. If you missed it, Reagon presents the Bay Area debut of her sensational all-women band Big Lovely at the Freight on Saturday. The daughter of civil rights activist and Sweet Honey In the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon, Toshi is a prolific songwriter, rhythmically deft guitarist, captivating singer, and charismatic force who’s at the center of a vast and disparate community of musicians and artists in Brooklyn. Big Lovely brings together players like jazz drum star Allison Miller and Judith Casselberry, a powerful vocalist who’s also a professor of Africana Studies at Bowdoin College.

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....