Vocalist/flutist Jeff Weinmann leads the all-star Alma Matters at the UC Theatre benefit for the Berkeley High jazz program Friday night. Photo: Andy Mogg

Berkeley High grads have beaten a wide and welcoming path to New York City, where alumni of BUSD’s vaunted jazz program constitute an essential creative force. Fortunately, that cross country route runs both ways.

The East Bay’s gravitational force often pulls top players back home from the East Coast (hello Josh Redman, Benny Green, and Ambrose Akinmusire!) And New York transplants aren’t immune to the primal call of school spirit, which will be on full display at Friday’s UC Theatre Berkeley High jazz program fundraiser featuring the award-winning BHS Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Sarah Cline and two talent-laden combos with deep roots in the jazz program, Peter Apfelbaum’s Sparkler and Jeff Weinmann’s Alma Matters.

For Weinmann, class of ’79, proximity to Berkeley’s jazz program provided an enduring dose of inspiration even though he never played in the band. During his Berkeley High years, the jazz ensemble drum chair was filled by the prodigious Tony Williams (who under the name Tony St. James went on to record with Les McCann, the Jazz Crusaders, Patrice Rushen and fellow Berkeley High alum Rodney Franklin). Weinmann found glory as a drummer and vocalist in the Cadillac Kids, a garage rock he helped launch at Willard. “We were hugely popular but not as good musicians as the jazz band,” Weinmann says. “I was in awe of those guys.”

He went on to study with the legendary drum teacher Alan Dawson at Berklee College of Music, and eventually returned to Berkeley and spent years teaching music in East Bay public schools. Friday’s fundraiser also serves as an album release celebration for Alma Matters, a project that was born out of a road trip to catch his former neighbor, Brooklyn-based Peter Apfelbaum, playing in Truckee. Hanging out in the mountain town, Weinmann raised the idea of collaborating on a recording.

“I figured I’m not going to get this moment again,” he recalls. “Peter had done a lot of stuff with my 6th grade buddy Jeff Cressman,” a friend of Weinmann’s from Longfellow who went on to become an esteemed sound engineer and trombonist. “The idea was to have Jeff facilitate a recording featuring sides of Peter that are less known, like his piano playing, and music that inspired us when we were younger, gospel and different kinds of grooves.”

The core Alma Matters ensemble with Peter Apfelbaum. Jeff Cressman, Sandy Cressman, Natalie Cressman, Julianna Cressman, and Jeff Weinmann. Photo: David Belove.

The album is a gorgeous and loving celebration of bonds forged by music and family. Since Cressman was spending much of his time on the road playing trombone with Santana, Alma Matters took some four years to record, with a different cast of musicians on every track. For the UC Theatre concert, Weinmann’s project includes several of the Berkeley High alumni featured on the album, namely Apfelbaum, trumpeter Erik Jekabson and drummer Josh Jones, and several BHS grads who didn’t participate, such as New York guitarist Will Bernard, saxophonist Eddie Mininfield, and bassist Keith McArthur (pianist Samora Pinderhughes and his younger sister flutist/vocalist Elena Pinderhughes play on the album but couldn’t make it out for the concert from New York, though she’s performing at Yoshi’s on June 1-2 with New Orleans trumpet star Christian Scott).

Special guests include percussion maestro John Santos, and the vocalists Terrance Kelly, the director of Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, and Tony Lindsay, formerly from Santana. The entire Cressman clan performs with Alma Matters too, with Sandy on vocals, Jeff on trombone, Natalie on trombone and vocals, and Julianna, a dancer who’s been studying in Brazil in recent months, featured in an Afro-Brazilian dance interlude before Kelly leads a rousing finale of the spiritual “Wade in the Water.”

In many ways, Weinmann draws inspiration not just from the Berkeley High jazz cats, but the entire musical milieu of Berkeley in the 70s when “there was music all over the place. We had assemblies where the black girls would get up and dance to James Brown. We were all influenced by what was going on, not just in the school, but in the community. There were bands always playing in Provo Park. I was inspired by all of that.”

Cellist/vocalist Theresa Wong presents her Taoist-inspired song cycle commissioned by Vajra Voices at the California Jazz Conservatory Sunday afternoon. Photo: Heike Liss

Berkeley cellist, composer and vocalist Theresa Wong presents “To Burst to Bloom” Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory. A new work commissioned by Vajra Voices for the all-women choir and Shira Kammen, the song cycle draws on the poems of Sun Bu’er, the 12th century Taoist priestess and one of the Taoist Seven Masters of Quanzhen. The songs explore inner alchemy and “the fluid interplay of abstract vocal utterances with language and meaning,” Wong writes. The concert is part of the San Francisco Early Music Society’s Early Music Sundays series at the CJC.

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....