Denny Abrams made his mark on Berkeley by transforming Fourth Street from a rundown strip of warehouses into a walkable urban idyll that remains one of the region’s most inviting commercial districts. He’s still pursuing projects with Abrams/Millikan & Associates, his Fourth Street-based design/build development firm, but he’s also found a very different field to play in, backing some of the most creative artists in jazz.
Last year, a project that he executive produced won the Latin Grammy Award for best Latin jazz album. A dauntingly ambitious recording by New York-based Argentine pianist/composer Emilio Solla’s Tango Jazz Orchestra, Puertos: Music From International Waters was mixed in Oscar Autie’s El Cerrito studio. The project was definitely a dark horse, winning over much higher profile artists like Chick Corea & The Spanish Heart Band.
It’s the kind of visibility and recognition that transforms an artist’s career. In a storybook development there’s a direct line between Solla’s Latin Grammy triumph and a major symphonic commission he premieres July 1 in Alicante, Spain, in honor of the late pianist/composer Chick Corea featuring Cuban reed legend Paquito D’Rivera.
Abrams tends to downplay his contributions as primarily financial (“The executive producer doesn’t do much besides write a check, let’s be honest,” he says), but the projects he’s chosen to support are proof of his enviably discerning ears and finely developed taste. His handiwork will be vividly on display again May 28 with the release of Descarga for Bud, a brilliant new album by Spanish pianist Alex Conde. A former Bay Area resident who moved back to Spain last year and is now based in Valencia, Conde hails from a storied musical family, and he’s honed a singular synthesis of modern jazz and flamenco.
Abrams is clearly drawn to artists looking to extend the jazz tradition, but his decisions about which artists he wants to get involved with come down to a physical response. “I do make a judgement of who I support,” Abrams says. “It’s got to be beautiful music. I can’t define that, but everyone knows it when they hear it. It impacts your body.”
Music has long played a central role in his life. Abrams started on bass and has focused on piano for the past four decades, though he’s recently taken up trombone too. “It’s not been my main pursuit, but I’ve used it as a form of relaxation from my more stressful work, designing and building buildings,” he says. “I’ve always had a love for music, and I’ve always supported music and musicians.”
At 83, he hails from the generation that experienced jazz as an integral part of popular culture, and he grew up listening to R&B and jazz in the 1950s. He sat in the peanut gallery reserved for underage fans at the Black Hawk to see the Miles Davis Quintet, which made a powerful impression. His taste ran more toward West Coast cats like Dave Brubeck, Cal Tjader, Vince Guraladi, and Shelly Manne than East Coast players, though catching the Thelonious Monk Quartet at the Jazz Workshop in North Beach was another memorable musical encounter.
More than anything, his affinity for jazz musicians sensitized him to their chronic financial insecurity. “I remember these great musicians not getting any gigs and playing for so little money,” he says. “In Berkeley you could see Mose Allison at Mandrake’s for $5.”
Knowing the discipline and talent required to maintain a career in music from his own instrumental pursuits, Abrams says it was only natural for him to step into the role of patron once he had acquired the resources. “You get enough money you can afford to do these things,” he says. “These are people I really appreciate. I know how hard it is to play and know how good they are. We listen to all this music and it’s really enjoyable and nobody’s paying for it.”
Dividing his time between the East Bay and Manhattan in recent decades, he got to know a lot of musicians. Looking for ways to support talented but under-recognized players, he jumped in feet first. “I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he says, “but it was a way of having fun and participating in an industry that’s really interesting, though under great pressure.”
One of the first artists he worked with was New York pianist Dred Scott, who earned widespread attention in the early 1990s with the pioneering San Francisco jazz/hip hop band Alphabet Soup. Playing piano, keyboards, bass and drums, he recorded his most recent album, 2019’s Dred Scott Rides Alone, at Abrams’ Sebastopol recording studio.
They’re getting ready to release a project by the Pacific Jazz Quartet that focuses on their mutual love of West Coast jazz, featuring saxophonist Eric Crystal, bassist John Wiitala and Smith Dobson on drums. The repertoire is drawn from tunes first recorded on the Los Angeles-based record label Pacific Jazz, which documented many cool jazz pioneers of the 1950s.
The project introduced Abrams to Dobson, a multi-instrumentalist from an eminent Bay Area musical family. Duly impressed by his musicianship (“He’s a fabulous drummer,” Abrams says) he started hanging out at Club Deluxe in the Haight where Dobson’s quartet held down a weekly gig for years, usually featuring Dobson on tenor sax. Now they’re working on an album together, recording at Abrams’s Sebastopol studio.
Alex Conde made a similarly vivid impression on Abrams when they first met at a jam session in San Francisco, though it was more of a meet-cute scenario. Camille LeBlanc, who produces Every Blue Moon Concerts in Inverness, introduced Conde to Abrams as a flamenco pianist. Abrams figured the Spaniard wasn’t versed in jazz and started explaining the role of improvisation in the music being played.
It wasn’t until Conde got on stage himself to join the band for a deep dive into “Green Dolphin Street” that Abrams realized he’d been preaching to the reverend. When Conde came off the bandstand, “Denny was looking at me like, ‘What the hell did you just do?!’ and we laughed,” Conde says.
They struck up a friendship, and when Conde started thinking about recording a follow up to his acclaimed 2015 album Descarga for Monk, he approached Abrams about getting involved. The new album reimagines the seminal bebop compositions of pianist Bud Powell via flamenco forms (with a Caribbean side trip on a calypso-inspired arrangement of “Wail”).
Like on the earlier album, Conde teamed up with Oakland percussion maestro John Santos and bass virtuoso Jeff Chambers, the longtime Albany resident who died last week after a long fight against prostate cancer. Colin Douglas, a drummer deeply versed in Afro-Caribbean rhythms, rounds out the core quartet. Spanish flamenco percussion specialist Sergio Martinez also contributed on six of the nine tracks.
In another connection made through Camille LeBlanc, Ricky Fataar produced the album. A well-traveled drummer whose credits range from The Rutles and the Beach Boys to Boz Scaggs and his long-running gig with Bonnie Raitt, he took a hands-on role in the studio. Abrams served as executive producer and co-producer and continues to work promoting the project.
For Conde, the opportunity to pour his energy into arranging the music rather than running a GoFundMe campaign was invaluable. Abrams, he says, is the kind of patron every musician wants in their corner. “Denny has demonstrated so much commitment to this album,” Conde says. “He’s got so much energy, and his intuition and love for the music really guides him.”