Drummer/composer Alan Hall, second from the right, opens an experimental residency at the California Jazz Conservatory on Sunday with his electro-acoustic chamber jazz Ratatet. Photo: Lincoln Adler

Alan Hall is hardly the first jazz musician to devote himself to another art form. Bass great John Heard is an acclaimed sculptor, and percussionist Pete Escovedo spends as much time behind a canvas as the timbales. But with his acute sense of texture and constant search for vivid voicings, Hall, a consummate drummer and increasingly confident composer, seems to infuse his passion for visual arts directly into his music.

An accomplished photographer and painter, Hall opens a month-long residency at the California Jazz Conservatory on Sunday. He’s using the gigs as a sonic laboratory for his six-piece Ratatet, with CJC dates on Sunday Aug. 19 and Sunday Aug. 26 (Aug. 12 the band plays San Jose Jazz’s Summer Fest).

With some of his regular players unavailable for the first two CJC concerts he’s combining longtime bandmembers Dillon Vado (vibraphone and percussion) and Greg Sankovich (piano and keyboards) with redoubtable subs Charlie Gurke (baritone saxophone and reeds), Sheldon Brown (alto sax and bass clarinet), and Dan Feiszli (electric and double bass).

At the Ratatet’s CJC album release show in April for the band’s second album, Heroes, Saints and Clowns (Ridgeway Records), every piece featured different instrumentation. The effect was kaleidoscopic, with expanding and contracting ensembles that assiduously avoided the jazz cliché of playing a theme followed by a series of solos. It was chamber jazz at its best, exploring subtle dynamics and an ever-evolving array of instrumental combinations with all the deliberation of a pointillist canvas.

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“The whole point is to make it interesting for the audience,” says Hall, a San Jose native and founding member of the CJC faculty now living in Sebastopol. “When bands are fronted by horn players they often want to blow on every song. I’ve done the head-solo-head thing and I just don’t want to do that. Ratatet is about the compositions. I like the idea of solos that are so minimalist it’s almost like another melody that floats in and out. There are so many possibilities I’m still trying to figure out.”

Part of what makes Ratatet shows so enthralling is that Hall is always searching for interesting ways to showcase the band’s various musical personalities. Like a painter mixing hues, he creates passages for, say, vibes and keyboards, that sound unlike any other band. “I’m definitely trying to do things differently,” Hall says. “I keep trying avenues that haven’t been explored yet. In one song, we’re starting with a duo, then moving to a different duo, then to a quartet. I’m really having fun trying these different combinations.”

Hall traces his commitment to exploring visual arts to an epiphany he experienced shortly after moving back to the Bay Area in 1993 from Boston, where he’d spent several years as an assistant professor in the percussion department at the Berklee College of Music. Walking through an SFMOMA exhibition of Alexander Calder mobiles, “I got this feeling of playful joy that was so powerful,” he says. “I felt like I’ve got to do this. The first things I did were some profiles with hanger wire and I just kept on going, taking classes here and there. At the last Ratatet show at the Hillside Club I put up a bunch of paintings and photos and sold two pieces. It’s like music, hard to explain. Certain things you hear hit you so deeply.”

Berkeley vocalist Emy Tseng performs Saturday

Berkeley vocalist Emy Tseng performs Saturday night at the California Jazz Conservatory as part of the school’s Rising Stars series. Photo: Rosaura Sandoval
Berkeley vocalist Emy Tseng performs Saturday night at the California Jazz Conservatory as part of the school’s Rising Stars series. Photo: Rosaura Sandoval

He’s not the only artist at the CJC this weekend with a dual career, though vocalist Emy Tseng doesn’t bring her other passion onto the bandstand. In the process of earning a degree from the conservatory, she performs Saturday as part of the CJC’s Rising Stars series, accompanied by a stellar cast of musicians including Anne Sajdera (piano), Fred Randolph (bass), Dan Foltz (drums), Ami Molinelli (percussion) and Masaru Koga (saxophones and flute).

Studying part time, the Berkeley resident spends her days working to promote broadband access and digital inclusion in underserved communities, a field she’s concentrated on for some two decades. Her professional profile isn’t the only thing that sets Tseng apart. She was already an accomplished interpreter of Brazilian jazz who studied with Marcos Silva at the Jazzschool before she moved to Washington DC and recorded her first album, Sonho.

Born in Taipei, Taiwan, she moved to the United States with her family as a baby. Growing up in the Midwest, she began classical piano lessons at four, and continued piano studies during her adolescence in Seattle. After joining several choirs in high school Tseng turned her attention to singing, and vocals were her main musical expression by the time she went off to Brown University.

After graduating with a degree in math and physics, she had the chance to focus on singing again while attending graduate school at MIT, studying early music and French and German art song repertoire at the nearby Longy School of Music. It wasn’t until she moved to New York City in 2001 that she became enamored with jazz and Brazilian music, a passion fed by the abundance of amazing artists performing regularly near her apartment in Greenwich Village.

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“I lived within walking distance of the Village Vanguard and other clubs,” she recalls. “When I heard jazz live I fell in love with it and then Brazilian jazz and bossa nova when I heard singers like Paula Morelenbaum and Luciana Souza.”

During her three years in New York, Tseng studied with master teacher and vocal wizard Jay Clayton, learning jazz improvisation. Living and working in Berkeley from 2004-09, she plunged into workshops at Jazz Camp West and California Brazil Camp, and studied at the Jazzschool with vocalist Sandy Cressman and Marco Silva, “who taught me how to sing Brazilian jazz,” Tseng says. “He was very precise and taught students how to play in a Brazilian way.” Before she left the Bay Area, she had started performing around the region.

When she moved to Washington DC in 2009 to work on a national program to get low-income and underserved communities online, she quickly fell in with the district’s thriving Brazilian jazz scene. “They took me under their wings and encouraged me to perform and record,” Tseng says. She documented those relationships on Sonho.

Since moving back to Berkeley in the fall of 2016, Tseng has started performing again, mostly at Riggers Loft in Richmond. While still deeply engaged with Brazilian jazz, she’s been expanding her repertoire, with a particular focus on arranging pop tunes from more recent decades than the usual American Songbook vintage. She credits Laurie Antonioli, the head of the CJC’s vocal program, with encouraging her exploration, including adding original songs to the mix.

“It’s new stuff, which is both very exciting and nerve wracking,” Tseng says. “There are a couple Brazilian pieces, but this is my coming out for a new direction, a broader, more eclectic mix. I have a samba version of ‘Tainted Love,’ and an original ‘Cryptocurrency Blues.’

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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....