Kimiko Joy performs as special guest Thursday at Freight & Salvage with the John Santos Quartet. Photo: Jon Crisp

If central casting put out a call for a soul star, a casting director could make her reputation by sending Kimiko Joy to the audition. The vocalist, songwriter, teacher and arranger looks like a R&B diva, sounds like a soul queen, and performs with the self-possessed cool of a prime-time veteran. So why isn’t the Berkeley-born Joy a headliner leading her own combo? Simply put, she’s got other priorities.

Returning to Freight & Salvage on Thursday as a special guest with John Santos Quartet, Joy gets an all-too-rare turn as a headliner at a benefit concert for the venerable venue, which is celebrating its 50th year as a presenter. Joy’s musical life is as rich as ever, with a full-time slate of assignments as a studio musician, teacher, arranger, and composer.

“I’m a songwriter,” says the Oakland mother of three. “I have tons of ideas and I can’t help but do that. But since I had kids, performing has slowed down considerably. I focus on where can I apply my talents to make a good living.”

Joy doesn’t avoid performing. She made a memorable appearance at the Freight in March as part of Rhonda Benin’s annual Just Like a Woman showcase. And she’ll be fronting the rising North Bay soul band Monophonics at Sweetwaters Dec. 28-29. But with the exorbitant cost of living in the Bay Area and the static or decreasing pay for club and restaurant gigs, she’s focused on private performances.

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“It’s an issue that really needs to be explored more, how the cost of living in the Bay Area stifles creativity,” she says. “And yet there are all these masters here, people like Colin Hogan, Tiny Lindsay, and Howard Wiley.”

John Santos has made a point of showcasing some of the most brilliant vocalists over the past five years at showcase concerts at SFJazz, Yoshi’s, and the Monterey Jazz Festival. For Thursday’s concert he’s joined by bassist Saul Sierra, pianist/trumpeter Marco Diaz, and drummer David Flores. He’s also featuring two students of his from across the street at the California Jazz Conservatory’s Jazzschool, a vibraphonist and saxophonist. But he’s particularly pleased about getting the chance to shine a light on Joy.

“She’s one of those gems, an artist who should be out there moving people on a large scale internationally,” he says. “She’s a wonderful mother and that’s her focus. They’re great kids. Her husband is a great drummer on the scene, Darrian Gray, and they work together a lot. She’s fronted various funk bands over years but kind of under the radar. She’s not in the position to go out on the road.”

Santos first met Joy as a teenager through her Cragmont Elementary School buddy Destani Wolf (who’s spent the past few months in Mumbai as the featured vocalist in Cirque du Soleil’s Bazzar). But they really got to know each other as part of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s 2005 hip-hop infused investigation of his Haitian-American identity.

“That was the first time really got to hear her beautiful voice,” Santos says. “We became close because that project went on for months, a big production with spoken word artists, dancers, musicians. She sang some music that I wrote. And since then we’ve had a few opportunities to perform together over the years.”

“Our paths just continue to cross working in different community organizations, like La Peña and Eastside Arts Alliance,” she says. “People working within those organizations always seem to put us on the same bill. And now our children are connected. Our daughters are both at Oakland School for the Arts.”

Part of what sets Joy apart from so many of her vocal peers is her wide ranging curiosity. While many of her friends were getting into jazz in high school, she was more interested in writing poetry. She started singing her original pieces a cappella, and soon attracted musicians eager to work with her.

Studying music at San Francisco State, she was working with songwriter, bassist and producer Paris King in the group Crossroads when he turned her on to the Ali Akbar College of Music. “As we were writing he’d throw out these melodies that were so intricate,” she recalls. “Where are you getting this from? Ali Akbar. I signed up for a class and I ended up spending all day there. The vocal class would happen and then the string would happen, and Khansahib would invite me to stay. He’d say, ‘Get your ear used to the raga your studying.’ I did that for two years and it was transformational in terms of how I think about melody.”

Funk and soul, jazz and R&B, clave and Hindustani modes are just some of the currents running through the lustrous voice of Kimiko Joy.

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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....