One of Erik Jekabson’s most remarkable achievements with the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra is the way he’s turned the ensemble into a roiling creative community. Just about every show features new material written by a musician associated with the band, which consistently draws some of the region’s finest players, composers and arrangers.
The group’s ongoing residency at the California Jazz Conservatory, where its Sunday afternoon shows are usually preceded by a student ensemble, is where this community manifests itself, as the orchestra is often joined by guest artists performing material written with them in mind. The band returns to the CJC’s Rendon Hall on Sunday to celebrate the release of its third album Matter Is (doubleOone Records), a project showcasing the vocal artists who’ve performed with the group over the years.
For Sunday’s concert, the ESO will be joined by all of the vocalists featured on the album, an improbably deep pool of talent including poet/percussionist Avotcja, Kenny Washington, Kalil Wilson, Sandy Cressman and Madeline Eastman. “It’s been an amazing thing seeing people see opportunities with the orchestra and just go for them,” says Jekabson, Berkeley High class of 1991. “I’m following some sort of path that the musical cosmos has opened and I’m just going with it.”
The orchestra’s path is heading to some prestigious destinations. On Sept. 29, the ESO plays an afternoon set at the Monterey Jazz Festival on the Garden Stage, with Kalil Wilson joining on vocals. In addition to the ESO, Jekabson leads a stellar sextet that performs July 6 at the Fillmore Jazz Festival, July 9 at Sonoma’s Tuesday Night Market Jazz series, and July 12 at the Stanford Jazz Festival. The group’s personnel has evolved over the years, and the latest iteration features fellow Berkeley High alum Dave Ellis on tenor saxophone and featured percussionist John Santos.
If running a sextet requires a good deal of logistical management, keeping the 17-piece ESO on track is a minor miracle. Jekabson has gathered a dedicated team and keeps it going with a disciplined routine. “It takes up some time, but everybody gets their own subs,” he says. “Jeff Marrs is the main drummer, but the drum chair is always changing. And when I can’t make it to a performance somebody will step up run the show. For the production of this record, Jeff Cressman has been incredibly generous in mixing the album. This is the third record he’s done, and he’s been a huge part of making them sound great.”
The Electric Squeezebox Orchestra’s album release extravaganza isn’t the only exceptional jazz show happening in the area on June 30. Berkeley-reared bass clarinet and tenor saxophone great David Murray makes a rare hometown appearance Sunday at the Back Room with Chicago percussionist Kahil El’Zabar in an elemental duo. While Murray graduated from St. Mary’s, he got his start in the Berkeley public schools in the late 1960s when Phil Hardymon coached him on saxophone. One of the most prolific and powerful jazz artists of the era, he’s released well over 150 albums since 1976’s Low Class Conspiracy (Adelphi), a rollicking trio session with bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Phillip Wilson. The duo also performs at Bird & Beckett in San Francisco on Monday.
Also on June 30, there’s a rare Bay Area appearance at the Ivy Room by Endangered Blood, an all-star quartet featuring tenor saxophonist Chris Speed and alto saxophonist/bass clarinetist Oscar Noriega, drummer Jim Black and Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, a force on the Bay Area creative music scene in the 1990s. Berkeley drummer Scott Amendola opens the evening on drums and electronics with his recent trio featuring guitarist Karl Evangelista and bassist Jason Hoopes.
If all of these singular options stress you out, saunter on over to Takara Sake on Saturday to catch Masaru Koga, a fantastic saxophonist and flutist whose music encompasses straight-ahead jazz, Afro-Latin, Japanese, and avant-garde influences. He’s joined by piano ace Frank Martin, drummer Bryan Bowman, and bassist Noriyuki Okada. The music will be enhanced by sake tasting before and after the performance.