Kai Eckhardt is rebooting his practice as a performer. One of the world’s leading voices on the electric bass over the past three decades, the longtime Berkeley resident has been a scarce presence on stage in recent years while he concentrated on designing and running an online 108-day mentorship platform for aspiring and professional musicians. Itching to get back to performing, he’s introducing a new ensemble Friday at the California Jazz Conservatory, where he’s also on faculty.
Eckhardt dubbed the new project Resilience, and it corrals a dauntingly disparate array of musicians within a stylistically encompassing concept that embraces “funk, jazz, bebop, hip hop, and Indian classical music,” says Eckhardt, who’s probably best known as a founding member of the improvisation-laced jam band Garaj Mahal.
The ensemble combines comrades from previous bands and more recently minted relationships, like Mumbai-born violinist Radhika Iyer, who he met through a recent performance with Berkeley saxophonist George Brooks. Steeped in North Indian classical music, Iyer plays a custom-built seven-string electric violin with a range down into cello and double bass territory.
Resilience keyboardist Frank Martin is an old friend who’s been a first-call cat for artists from Chris Isaak and Sting to Al Jarreau and Angela Bofill. Eckhardt first played with Hassan Hurd, the drummer for Boots Riley and The Coup, about a year ago at a Freight & Salvage concert backing Berkeley vocal wizard Raz Kennedy “and our hookup was so good the sound engineer said that we should get married,” Eckhardt says. “I’m already married, so that didn’t make much sense, but I knew I wanted to play together again.”
Australian-born guitarist Chris Paul Robinson has played with Eckhardt in various situations for years “and he’s wonderful on both acoustic and electric,” he says. “He can play distorted guitar and sound more like a violin than a chainsaw.” And Albany saxophonist Mike Zilber is another longtime Eckhardt collaborator, a prolific composer/arranger and fellow CJC faculty member who celebrates the release of his sterling double album East West Music For Big Bands, at the school on Sunday.
In many ways Resilience was born out of Eckhardt’s desire to find a new model for an ensemble that spreads responsibility around. More than a collective, the group is designed as a vehicle that any of the players can take for an excursion. While Eckhardt supplied the bulk of the music for Friday’s show, “I gave an open invitation to everyone,” he says. “Any player can bring in music, but new music, written for the band. Let’s say Mike wants to do a gig, it became Mike Zilber’s Resilience. It’s the same band, but he deals with promotion and business.”
Eckhardt’s deeply entrenched life in Berkeley, where he met his wife at the old Yoshi’s on Claremont and they raised two children, stands in stark contrast to his own upbringing. He spent the first decade of his life in the West African capital Monrovia after his West German mother faced ostracization in her Rhineland town for having a child with a man from Liberia.
Taken in by a foster family, Eckhardt returned to Germany by himself at the age of 10. Music became his constant companion, and after earning a reputation as a bass phenomenon in Europe in the early 1980s he decided to come to the United States prompted by work with drummer Steve Smith’s jazz/rock fusion combo Vital Information and a scholarship to Berklee College of Music. It was in Boston that British guitar legend John McLaughlin first heard Eckhardt and recruited him for his expansive trio with Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu, an ensemble the performed widely around the world (and was memorably documented on the 1990 JMT album Live At The Royal Festival Hall).
Settling in the East Bay he also worked extensively with saxophonist George Brooks, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, and fusion drum innovator Billy Cobham (McLaughlin’s partner in the original Mahavishnu Orchestra). But it’s as a founding member of the world jam band Garaj Mahal that he reached a vast new audience. The band toured incessantly and released eight albums between 2003-2010, eventually disbanding due to constricting opportunities during the Great Recession.
He’s launched several new bands since then, but ended up focusing on teaching both in person and online. Until now, with Resilience and the relaunch of Garaj Mahal. Eckhardt and co-founding guitarist Fareed Haque are hitting the road again with a retooled quartet featuring Egyptian-born keyboardist Oz Ezzeldin and The Coup drummer Hassan Hurd. With the new ensembles he’s trying to practice what he preaches to his students, approaching music as an ego-less venture while also taking care of the bottom line in an environment that’s downright hostile to artists.
“If you look at your frame of mind as an operating system, the moment you adjust to the music scene’s new reality it’s already changing,” Eckhardt says. “With musicians it has to do with how we make our revenue. How fair is the system we created? What does art really mean?
“The best results as a creative person happen when we go into that sacred space not weighed down. My ego is pretty attached to the fact that I’m a good bassist and had a good career. But that gets in the way of being creative. The best results you get are when the empirical and emotional, the conscious and subconscious are balanced. Basically, I’m deeply dissatisfied with the status quo, and looking for new ways to approach old things.”
With Resilience, Eckhardt has found some estimable collaborators to join him in the search.