Feeling a little lost after graduating from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 2008, violinist Shaina Evoniuk only knew that she wasn’t interested in the usual path paved by chamber music gigs and symphonic concerts.
“I was considering moving to New York or traveling to Europe,” she recalls. “I hadn’t found my musical compadres, and I didn’t know what my musical voice was. I was a recovering classical musician.”
With a job she loved teaching music at San Domenico School in San Anselmo, Evoniuk could pay her bills, but it wasn’t until receiving an unexpected email from the Godfather that she found herself inexorably drawn into the fearsome Bay Area conspiracy known as the Jazz Mafia. These days, she’s a made member of the stylistically heedless crew, and she celebrates the release of her debut album Hitwoman Honey with the Cosa Nostra Strings on Wednesday at the California Jazz Conservatory’s Rendon Hall in a concert co-presented by Jazz in the Neighborhood.
How did the young violinist from Ashland, Oregon end up with a defiantly creatively gang of players melding jazz, funk, hip hop and European classical idioms? As is so often the case in these sad tales, the trouble all started with a trombonist. Adam Theis, the Jazz Mafia ringleader, was looking for adventurous string players for his wildly ambitious, 50-piece hip-hop symphony Brass Bows and Beats when he reached out to the unsuspecting Evoniuk in 2009. Though she could only make a few of the eight scheduled performances, Theis said no problem, and just like that she found herself ensnared in a musical plot that soon drew glaring scrutiny, with appearances at the Newport, Monterey, Montreal and Playboy Jazz Festivals (the project was supported by an “Emerging Composer” grant from the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation).
Needless to say, Evoniuk had little idea what she was getting into, or the characters she had cast her lot with when she showed up for the first rehearsal “and played some of the most amazing music that included the bluegrass and jazz that made up my musical molecular structure,” she says, noting that she grew up watching her dobro-playing father rehearse his bluegrass band. When she returned to town for the Bay Area premiere at the Palace of the Fine Arts Theater, a concert presented by SFJAZZ, she plugged into a community that Theis had been building for a decade, a vivid cast including vocalist Alma the Dreamer, vocalist and drummer Joe Bagale, and rapper Dublin.
“After that I went out to every Jazz Mafia show for the next year,” Evoniuk says. “Now those musicians are all my best friends. I almost didn’t believe that life could change so quickly. I think it took me several months to realize that this is what I’ve been looking for. I found my people.”
She also found her person, as she and Theis are getting married in May. He co-leads the Cosa Nostra Strings, which is performing as a quintet with violist Keith Lawrence, Rupa and the April Fishes percussionist Aaron Kierbel, and cellist Lewis Patzner (who’s also scheduled to perform Haydn’s “Adagio Cantabile” from Symphony 13 on April 1 as part of the Starry Plough’s Classical Matinee Series).
The ensemble emerged from the Jazz Mafia collective several years ago when Theis was looking to explore more delicate dynamics. “Violin, viola and cello, instead of blasting the audience with sound, invite the audience to lean in,” Evoniuk says. “We developed this sound that can be like an R&B band or a jazz combo. We can be totally acoustic, and Lewis has his crazy effects pedals. And Aaron Kierbel, our percussionist, can play cajón, or typewriter, or a piece of paper.”
For Wednesday’s show, Evoniuk plans to explore various instrumental combinations, opening with a duet then adding more players. She composed most of the material on Hitwoman Honey, including the politically charged “Refuge,” a piece commissioned by the aerial artist Danielle Sandia Sexton, “who wrote a whole show about being an artist pushed out of your own home,” Evoniuk says. “The initial piece was for solo violin and some violin percussion and I expanded it for Cosa Nostra Strings. Then I sent it over to Dublin, and he wrote this incredible verse.”
As part of the Jazz in the Neighborhood initiative to bring young musicians together with professionals, Evoniuk has arranged a medley of Irish tunes to showcase Berkeley fiddler Tessa Schwartz (who’s already a bluegrass veteran via bands like 35 Years of Trouble).
Evoniuk might be married to the mob, but she’s also a hired gun sought out for all kinds of assignments. Her bow is all over a gorgeous track just released by neo-soul star Leon Bridges, “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand.” If you miss her at the CJC, she’ll be killing with the Cosa Nostra Strings at Strings in Emeryville on April 4.
Duck Baker plays the Freight on Tuesday
The Bay Area has a long history of musical renegades. Decades before the Jazz Mafia rolled into town, Duck Baker, now based in London, was a fingerstyle guitar wizard who recorded a series of classic albums for Stefan Grossman and ED Denson’s Berkeley-founded Kicking Mule Records. But his restless musical curiosity led him into far-flung musical fields, and he’s played traditional Irish music and blues, ragtime and free jazz, bebop, gospel and bluegrass. He’s also a prolific composer, incisive music critic, and author of numerous highly regarded music books and instructional videos.
In his first Bay Area performance since 2012, Baker plays Freight & Salvage on Tuesday with a diverse roster of special guests reflecting his disparate interests, including Chet Akins-style guitarist Jim Nichols, Cheap Suit fiddler Tony Marcus, bluegrass banjo maestro Bill Evans, traditional Irish vocalist Helen Roche, and saxophone improviser Phillip Greenlief.
Raised in Richmond, Virginia, Baker put in three significant Bay Area stints. He spent several years in San Francisco in the mid-1970s, a formative period he credits with radically expanding his musical horizons. After getting started in a bluegrass combo, he started playing in a duo with rhythm guitarist Tom Keats, who showed him the fundamentals of swing right around the time Baker landed the deal with Kicking Mule.
“We had a gig on a place on Market Street at Dubose and after a while some older jazz guys started coming in and sitting in,” Baker says. “They started hiring us when they had gigs without a piano. At the same time I met Bruce Ackley,” who soon went on to help found ROVA Saxophone Quartet, “and that opened up a whole new world of avant garde music.”
Baker was in and out of the area for the next two decades, setting up house in the East Bay from 1986-90, and again from 1996-2003, when he often stayed with his daughter in Berkeley and contributed CD reviews to the East Bay Express. He returns to town with a critically hailed new solo guitar album, Duck Baker Plays Monk (a vinyl release by Triple Point). And next month San Francisco-based Tompkins Square Records is releasing the double-album anthology Les Blues Du Richmond: Demos & Outtakes 1973-1979.
While pleased to be back in the Bay Area, Baker sees Tuesday’s show as a valedictory appearance at the Freight. It’s not exactly a farewell, but considering that he doesn’t get back to the region often, and he’s had some health setbacks “this might be last time I manage to play there,” he says. “I invited a whole bunch of guest artists who’ve played with me over the years at the Freight.”