The season doesn’t officially start for two weeks but with school out and temperatures rising, the tidal surge of summer concerts has arrived in Berkeley, bringing sounds from around the world.

For sheer creative audacity, the 8th Annual Berkeley Festival of Choro deserves special recognition. Presented by the Berkeley Choro Ensemble, which was founded in 2010 by North Berkeley flutist Jane Lenoir, the event features some of the most celebrated Brazilian artists dedicated to extending choro, an essential Brazilian style that’s evolved through a series of decades-long creative pulses since the 1870s. The festival’s centerpiece takes place June 14 at Freight & Salvage with a performance of The Brazilian Choro Suite, a three-movement work composed by Rio-born Oakland guitarist Ricardo Peixoto and Berkeley reed player Harvey Wainapel (both founding members of the BCE). Originally composed for a small ensemble, the pieces have been expanded into a chamber orchestra suite by Felipe Senna, the São Paulo-born arranger and composer who has worked with leading ensembles across Brazil, North America and Europe. Performing the suite is the 30-piece Echo Chamber Orchestra conducted by Daniel Canosa.

“Filipe is one of the brilliant young composers and arrangers in Brazil and a real proponent of Brazilian popular music in different settings,” said Lenoir, while noting that he’s blazed a brilliant trail as the founder and artistic director of the groundbreaking chamber ensemble Câmaranóva. “He does all of these arrangements and  orchestrations of choro, samba, and baiao and is really building this reputation for bringing Brazilian popular music into this orchestral idiom.”

The first set also features four compositions by Léa Freire, a renowned São Paulo composer, pianist and flutist, including “Mamulengo,” a portrait of the giant puppets that parade through the streets of the northeastern city of Olinda during Carnival, and “Bis a Bis,” a playful piece inspired by Freire’s great-grandmothers who lived across from each other and bickered from their windows. The second half of the concert brings together members of the Berkeley Choro Ensemble with three Brazilian guest artists, including clarinetist Alexandre Ribeiro, percussionist Roberta Valente (an expert on frame-drum pandeiro) and pianist/accordionist Vitor Gonçalves. Based in New York City, Gonçalves is a Brazilian jazz master who has worked extensively with Brazilian vocalist Claudia Villela and Israeli reed master Anat Cohen (with whom he’ll be performing on July 16 at the Stanford Jazz Festival). 

The choro festival is made possible by the Berkeley Civic Arts Grant Program and further support from a Berkeley Arts and Recovery Grant. The opening night takes place Saturday, June 11, at the Casa de Cultura in West Berkeley, featuring Zack Pitt-Smith and his Banda Juventude, offering a glimpse of Brazilian music’s past and future. The group is made up of students from six East Bay high schools, including Albany and Berkeley High. They’ll be joined on several pieces by members of the Oakland Eastside All-Star Ensemble, an OUSD program directed by Pitt-Smith, who’s earned numerous awards for his dedication to students, such as the 2013 OUSD Teacher of Year honor. He was also one of 10 finalists in the 2022 Grammy Awards for Public School Music Teacher of the Year and directed the middle school band featured on the soundtrack of the Pixar movie Soul. Banda Juventude will be performing early choros and maxixes arranged by Pixinguinha for Carnaval. In April, when clarinetist Anat Cohen was in the midst of a four-night run at the SFJAZZ Center, Pitt-Smith coaxed her to come to the East Bay to work on the music with the students.

Speaking of brilliant Brazilian composers, Berkeley guitarist and vocalist Ian Faquini, who was born and spent his childhood in the nation’s capital Brasilia, performs Friday, June 10, at the SFJAZZ Center’s Joe Henderson Lab with trombonist/vocalist Natalie Cressman. The captivating duo is celebrating the release of their new album Auburn Whispers, a program focusing on their original songs. With sinuous melodies that wend in unexpected directions and masterly instrumental interplay and beguiling vocal harmonies, Cressman and Faquini sound unlike anyone else on the scene. The duo also performs Thursday, June 16, as part of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival

The weekend opens with the world premiere of Jeff Denson’s “World of Possibilities,” a set of new music the bassist/vocalist composed for an extraordinary ensemble with pipa virtuoso Wu Man, a leading ambassador of Chinese music and frequent collaborator with Kronos Quartet, and pioneering multi-wind player improviser Paul McCandless, best known as a founding member of the world-jazz group Oregon, on soprano saxophone and bass clarinet. Presented by JAMBAR on Friday and Saturday, June 10-11, at the California Jazz Conservatory, where Denson is the dean of curriculum, the music combines “completely notated sections with sections for improvisation,” Denson said, with “improvising over forms and chord changes, as in traditional jazz settings, along with more open sections for exploring the colors and textures of the pipa, both solo as well as with the ensemble.” 

The quintet includes Oakland pianist and CJC alumnus Michael Echaniz and drum star Gerald Cleaver, whose relocation from New York City to San Francisco last year to take a CJC professorship has sparked a wave of creative ferment in the Bay Area (like his work in Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg’s Porch Concert Material trio, which plays the Stanford Jazz Festival July 1). It’s the latest in a series of CJC concerts with Denson and Cleaver underwritten by JAMBAR founder and CJC drum student Jennifer Maxwell, including last month’s shows with saxophone powerhouse Chris Potter (music director of the SFJAZZ Collective). “World of Possibilities” came about through a commission from the Portola Vineyards Summer Jazz Sessions festival, which involved writing “new music combining traditional jazz musicians with musicians from a non-Western culture,” Denson said. “I first heard and met Wu Man in San Diego in 2008, and I’ve wanted to collaborate with her ever since. This seemed like the perfect opportunity.”

Haitian-American cellist, banjo player, songwriter and vocalist Leyla McCalla has thrived since leaving the Carolina Chocolate Drops and launching a solo career. Fresh off releasing her fourth album Breaking the Thermometer (Anti-Records), she arrives in town to open for Canadian singer/songwriter and The New Pornographers lead vocalist Neko Case on June 12 at the UC Theatre. McCalla’s music keeps evolving with each move. She spent several years in New Orleans and is now based in Memphis. Her investigations into American roots music are deeply informed by her deep ties to Haitian culture. Her new album celebrates the legacy of Haiti’s first radio station to report the news in Haitian Kreyòl and the journalists and broadcasters who risked and lost their lives keeping Radio Haiti on the air for more than 60 years despite repression and assassinations. 

And in some late-breaking news, Venezuelan-born Emeryville jazz pianist Edward Simon won’t be able to make Friday’s Steel House performance at the Freight. Instead, joining the collective trio with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade will be trumpet star Ambrose Akinmusire, a graduate of Berkeley High who has become a celebrated improviser and composer with a busy roster of commissions. They’ve played together in bands led by Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, but this is the first time the trio has performed in this configuration.

Andrew Gilbert

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....