Even in death, Andre Bush manages to bring people together. A creative force on the Bay Area scene as a player and educator for two decades, the Fresno-raised guitarist departed the scene suddenly in 2014 at the age of 45, leaving many musical compatriots stricken. Abiding affection for Bush ended up bringing together two of his longtime collaborators, vocalist Jenna Mammina and drummer Jeremy Steinkoler, who celebrate the release of the recent Jenna and the Charmers album Everyone I Love Is Here at The Back Room on Thursday.
“I first heard Jenna play in the ‘90s at Yoshi’s with Andre, and I was floored,” says Steinkoler, the co-founder and co-director of BandWorks, the all-ages school for rock musicians. “It was just super creative. I started playing with Andre in my quartet, and he ended up teaching me a lot about playing and trusting my voice. He and I had our thing and he and Jenna had their thing and there was never any crossover.”
But after Bush’s death, Steinkoler reached out to Mammina. “I told her I used to play with Andre and that he always spoke so highly of her,” he recalls. “I wondered if she’d be interested in getting together. We hung out and listened to some of our favorite music together, and started talking about playing the music that we love.”
The Charmers evolved over the course of a year or so before the current lineup solidified with Steve Bissinger on guitar and lap steel and Ryan Lukas on upright and electric bass (veteran pianist Lee Bloom also contributes on two tracks). Versed in jazz but drawn to sophisticated pop music, Mammina has long distinguished herself as a savvy song stylist with a less-is-more aesthetic. The repertoire touches on the American Songbook (with a poignant version of Frank Loesser’s “Never Will I Marry”), but tends more toward Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, Sting, John Mayer and Shawn Colvin, filtered through Mammina’s distinctively throaty delivery.
More than a showcase for a singer who’s cultivated a winsome, utterly personal sound, Everyone I Love Is Here captures a beautifully calibrated working ensemble that wraps an impressive array of songs in an intimate embrace. Mammina has long exemplified the way minimalist arrangements can reveal potent emotional undercurrents running through pop tunes, jazz standards, and rock anthems, and with the Charmers she’s found a sleek new vehicle for stripping songs down to the bone.
“The material bends to the band’s sound, and like any other record I’ve done I pick songs that resonate with my heart,” says Mammina, who notes that she often performs in duo setting with just guitar or piano. “I’m so used to a lot of space working with Rolf Strum and John R. Burr. Even though this is a quartet, they leave me a lot of room. Jeremy is such a great drummer. He knows songs. He knows the lyrics and he’s playing the melodies. And Ryan is a true virtuoso.”
The last key component fell into place after the band’s original guitarist, John Pruess, moved to Seattle. Mammina had an inkling that her friend of two decades Steve Bissinger would be ideal, but “he’s a sound designer at Skywalker and he was was working on House of Cards and The Incredibles 2. He wasn’t looking for a gig. I said, can you just come and hear us? Afterwards he said, do you have charts? John handed him the charts and he came in and he’s our guy, a brilliant musician who plays all different kind of string instruments.”
Steinkoler is best known as a performer for leading the small but mighty Mo’Fone, a trio featuring Jim Peterson on baritone saxophone and Larry De La Cruz on alto sax, clarinet and flute. The group is part of the California Jazz Conservatory’s April 7 triple bill “Drummers Up Front,” with two other drummer-led combos, Alan Hall’s Ratatet and Dillon Vado’s Never Weather.
Recommended gigs: Faye Carol / Jeff Denson
Berkeley jazz and blues matriarch Faye Carol starts up another residency at The Back Room, playing every Sunday in March with her trusty accompanist Joe Warner, a pianist who seems to grow by leaps and bounds every month. She is a Bay Area treasure and she’s found an ideal home base at this living room-like venue.
The inveterately inventive bassist, vocalist, composer and California Jazz Conservatory professor Jeff Denson performs Saturday at the Hillside Club with a newly expanded electro-acoustic ensemble featuring Paul Hanson on bassoon and electronics, Lyle Link on tenor and soprano saxophones, Dahveed Behroozi on piano and keyboards, Ryan Pate on guitar and Dillon Vado on drum set and percussion.