Master musical storyteller Ed Reed performs at the Back Room on Sunday afternoon. Photo: Ashley Summer

On stage, Ed Reed is one of jazz’s great storytellers, a master balladeer who strips lyrics down to the marrow. Off stage, the 89-year-old singer has a few tales to tell too, anecdotes that often start in pathos and conclude in triumph, like the time in the early 1950s when he followed vocalist Ernestine Anderson around West Oakland’s Seventh Street like a puppy, and then ended up sharing the stage with her at Yoshi’s San Francisco some five decades later.

The Richmond resident returns to the intimate confines of the Back Room on Sunday afternoon with ace Alameda pianist/arranger Adam Shulman, veteran Oakland drummer David Rokeach, and  Berkeley bassist Carla Kaufman, “who got me the gig at the Cheese Board in the early 2000s” that launched his late-blooming career, Reed said during a recent joint interview with his wife Diane at Peet’s on Fourth Street.

Together, Ed and Diane have spent the past few years working on a braided memoir, Double Helix, that delves into their complicated lives before they met in the mid-1960s at UCLA and started a torrid and tortured romance. They both detail the tumultuous course of their relationship, which finally started to stabilized when he shook his addiction to heroin and got clean in the mid-1980s (they recently finished the book and are looking for an agent).

Before plunging into the turmoil, the story opens in a moment of jazz redemption that had long seemed unattainable for Ed. Making his New York debut at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in 2015 with the superlative accompanists George Cables (piano), Akira Tana (drums) and Ugonna Okegwo (bass), “he inhabited this stage with casual flair,” wrote Nate Chinen for The New York Times. Reviewing the opening night performance, he praised Reed’s “dark-mahogany baritone with careful diction,” noting that his phrasing evokes “the midcentury styles of Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole.”

YouTube video

It’s a moment to savor in a story where Reed’s success was often the prelude to disaster. Not surprisingly, Ed says the section on recovery is his favorite. “With recovery came music and teaching. I’ve called music dessert, and teaching is the real meal,” said Reed, who leads a weekly class at New Bridge Foundation in North Berkeley. “Now music is coming alive again. I’m doing a lot of things that Eckstine sang, and I’m nervous about it. They’re so lyrical and romantic, but they don’t have anything to do what’s going on today. They’re about dreams, rather than what’s happening most of the time.”

For Diane, the process of writing the memoir has been revelatory. “We learned a lot more about each other, even after all the years we’ve been together,” she said. “Doing this at this point in our lives it’s been a very empowering kind of process to go through, more than I would have ever gotten out of therapy. Even if nobody reads it, there were so many dots connected that I don’t think would have happened if we hadn’t done this painful process. All the secrets you carry around are out.”

Ed and Diane Reed have finished a searing, braided autobiography “Double Helix.”
Ed and Diane Reed have finished a searing, braided autobiography “Double Helix.”

Secrets, shame and insecurity were forces that drove Ed for decades. Even as a teenager he used music as a tool to woo girls he was too timid to talk to, calling them on the phone and crooning songs like the Nat “King” Cole hit “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” instead of chatting. He sees the songs he sings today “as telling a story about another time where people were different. There was so much dishonesty. People couldn’t say what was true about themselves and their choices. But that time had a beauty and romance that we don’t have now.” And when Reed sings an exquisite ballad like “My Foolish Heart,” he manifests that beauty like no one else.

24-year-old Albany saxophonist Sam Priven is writing a new script

While Ed Reed draws on a long lifetime of hard-won wisdom in his music, 24-year-old Albany saxophonist Sam Priven is writing a new script. The award-winning player moved back to the East Bay after graduating from the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, and brings an excellent young band to Jupiter on Saturday night featuring drummer Matthew Buckner, pianist Omree Gal-Oz and bassist Tyler Harlow.

Catching up with Priven a couple days after he returned from a month in Europe, he said he hadn’t had time to develop much new material for the gig, but the quartet serves as the house band for the California Jazz Conservatory’s Sunday night jam session. “We’re used to taking standards and finding new ways of doing them,” he said. “We’ll take a Monk or Ellington piece and put our own weird twist on them. We won’t be playing anything that’s overly arranged.”

Growing up in Albany, Priven tapped into Berkeley’s extensive educational resources, studying at the Jazzschool and taking private lessons with Alameda saxophone guru Dann Zinn and Berkeley clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg. They both set him on a path to find his own voice on the horn, and he’s earned several awards from Downbeat and an outstanding soloist award at Jazz at Lincoln Center from Jimmy Heath and Wynton Marsalis.

YouTube video

“Both Dann and Ben are amazing in totally different ways,” Priven said. “Dann is the crucible and he’ll work you to the bone. It’s very creative and he want you to find your own thing. Ben is very Zen and lets stuff flow where it needs to flow. I started studying with him in late middle school, and he laid the ground work for understanding theory and improvisation. Walking into his house it’s like a laboratory of musical instruments and sounds. My mind worked so hard during those sessions with him that I could barely speak at the end. I was normally extremely talkative and my parents were like, what is wrong with you?”

The kid was alright, and now he’s helping stoke Berkeley’s music scene with the CJC’s Sunday night jam, which is drawing Berkeley High students, CJC students and musicians from the community. “It’s a great mix,” Priven said. “It’s really inspiring seeing all these amazing high school students coming by to play.”

YouTube video

Lost your groove? There’s no better place to get it back than at a performance by the blues combo HowellDevine, featuring Joshua Howell on guitar, harmonica and vocals, drummer Pete Devine and bassist Joe Kyle Jr., who return to the Back Room on Friday. The band released its fourth album Howl on Little Village Records last October. Yes, I wrote the album’s liner notes, and yes, they thanked me with a fine bottle of rum. Whether I’m liquored up or not, HowellDevine taps directly into the divine boogie.

For cornucopian string pleasure, there’s no experience quite like the Freight Fiddle Summit, which returns to the venue on Thursday Aug. 23. Led by Scottish fiddle master Alasdair Fraser and cello virtuoso Natalie Haas, this year’s cast includes Anders Hall, Adam Johansson and Jens Linell from the Nordic folk band SVER, fiddler/vocalist Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards, vocalist Moira Smiley, pianist/vocalist Cali McKasson and step dance wizard Nic Gareiss.

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....