Three musicians in a patio with a brick wall and a giant B
Ariel Spagnolo, Rocco Rizzi and Flora Sullivan perform on Babette’s back patio. Courtesy: Babette

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Update: The initial performance scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 6, in Babette’s new back patio music series has been canceled.

Music wasn’t on the menu when Joan Ellis and Patrick Hooker reopened Babette last year in the San Pablo Avenue space long occupied by Lanesplitter Pizza. But over the course of the summer, the back patio has turned into an al fresco venue, with a century-spanning array of jazz manifesting underneath a giant, prehistoric-looking staghorn fern. 

The first foothold was established by The Easy Winners, a ragtime-inspired duo with an expansive repertoire of turn-of-the-19th-century tunes. They approached the proprietors about a regular gig, and they’ve been serenading Friday brunchers ever since. Not long afterwards Ellis and Hooker happened to hear Berkeley High drummer Flora Sullivan leading a combo “and they were fantastic,” Ellis said. “We spoke to her and they’ve been playing Saturdays or Sundays the past two months or so.” 

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Now Babette’s musical feast is expanding to locally sourced evening fare, with Wednesdays featuring a prix fixe menu and a monthly residency series that kicks off Sept. 6 with the duo of Berkeley violinist Irene Sazer and Gary Muszynski on hand pan and percussion. A master improviser whose wide-ranging musical travels have taken her from Turtle Island String Quartet to her Real Vocal String Quartet, Sazer draws on everything from bluegrass and Brazilian choro to bebop, Bach and beyond. She’s showcasing a wide swath of her musical terrain at Babette. 

Sazer and her violin
Berkeley violinist Irene Sazer. Credit: Jim Block

With Muszynski, another noted musical traveler, she’ll be playing meditative improvisations. On Sept. 13, Sazer will be joined by Berkeley string expert Erik Pearson on guitar and banjo, playing old-time music and improvisations inspired by their love of West African rhythms and other idioms. Berkeley flutist Jane Lenoir, a founding member of the Berkeley Choro Ensemble, plays a program of Baroque and Brazilian music with Sazer Sept. 20. She closes the run Sept. 27 with San Francisco violinist Kate Stenberg, a longtime partner in improvisation and musical exploration. 

In another booking coup, Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg is on tap for October, as Ellis and Hooker hope to increase traffic during a traditionally slow night. “It’s an experiment,” Ellis said. “We can live vicariously and create something special.”

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The vicarious pleasure derived from presenting some of the region’s most esteemed musicians stems from their own musical backgrounds. Ellis spent years as an aspiring singer who “tried on a lot of different hats” while wending her way from folk music to punk bands to jazzy blues (or bluesy jazz), “but never knew how to make a career of it,” she said.

Hooker was a guitarist and bassist who played in Last Rites, a heavy metal band from Dallas that performed widely. “I still don’t like metal and never have, but he’s come around to my taste,” she said, noting that they ended up working out a set of songs to perform together. But that was before they opened Babette in 2012, an all-consuming endeavor that required them to put their own music aside. 

“With this beautiful space of our own I got this idea that we could be presenting the community something really nice,” Ellis said. “Irene is an old friend — our kids went to school together — and she came by one day to check out the acoustics. After thinking about it for a few days she got back to me and said, ‘What if I started out and had a different duet partner each week,’ which sounded perfect. It all fell together really quickly.”

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....