As the wave of omicron decimates the early winter concert season, a new series featuring the Bay Area’s leafy experimental and improvisational music scene offers respite from the wave of canceled concerts.
The West Oakland Sessions, presented by Jazz in the Neighborhood and multidisciplinary performance center New Performance Traditions, will take place in the spacious Dresher Ensemble Studio just off West Grand Avenue. The 10-concert series opens this Sunday with Richmond Rent Romus saxophonist’s exuberant Life’s Blood Ensemble and will continue until May 22 with a closing performance led by bassist Lisa Mezzacappa.
Concerts in between feature an array of the region’s most adventurous musicians, including microtonal trio Facets by San Jose tenor saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh, with pianist Alex Peh and drummer Keshav Batish (March 20); Positive Knowledge, the dynamic Oakland couple of multi-editor Oluyemi and singer/poet Ijeoma Thomas, with drummer Donald Robinson (April 10); and the folk chamber jazz quartet House of Faern by San Francisco saxophonist Beth Schenck, with violinist Jenny Scheinman (April 24).
“Given the experimental nature of what Paul Dresher does, the studio seemed like a really natural place for this to happen,” said veteran trumpeter Mario Guarneri, director and co-founder of Jazz in the Neighborhood, an organization non-profit that produces many concerts around the Bay Area while advocating (and offering) fair compensation for musicians.
Audiences will be limited to half the studio’s maximum capacity and concerts include safety protocols designed to keep listeners, musicians and staff safe, with ticket holders and performers all required to provide proof of complete vaccination (including a booster). With a dearth of East Bay venues open to experimental music right now, the series fills an obvious void.
“Knowing that it’s so difficult for the whole music community now, we wanted to create a series focused on those genres, where the music really needs to be heard in a concert presentation,” Guarneri said, noting that the music provides an experience immersive rather than setting an atmosphere. “In most of the cases [artists] can’t just walk into a bar or restaurant for a concert.
In developing the West Oakland Sessions roster, Guarneri worked closely with Dresher and Paul Dresher Ensemble, Executive Director Dominique Pelletey, whose 11-year tenure with San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music transformed the organization in a powerhouse known for its flagship event SF Music Day (which will take place on March 22 this year). He also consulted with several musicians to curate a series featuring artists known for both forging distinctive sounds and creating a DIY scene that is mostly overlooked by high profile venues like the SFJAZZ Center and Yoshi’s.
Over the past three decades, few artists have done more to uphold the Bay Area’s ethos of experimental music than Romus, whose Edgetone label has released more than 200 albums spanning free jazz, avant rock, electronic and experimental music. He’s released albums by several other West Oakland Sessions artists and showcased just about all of them through Outsound, the non-profit organization he founded that has produced weekly gigs at the San Francisco luggage store for two decades before the pandemic.
In recent years, Romus has developed unique music inspired by The Kalevalaa collection of epic poetry, folklore and mythology that played a vital role in shaping Finland’s national identity in the mid-19and century. Inspired by his Finnish heritage, he honed a powerful synthesis of avant-garde jazz and traditional Finnish music in his Life Blood Ensemble with San Francisco-based Finnish multi-instrumentalist Heikki Koskinen.
At the concert on Sunday, he will premiere several pieces from a new suite,
“Itquaj”, a Finnish word meaning to cry or lament. “When I was in Finland in 2019, I went to the Karelian Cultural Museum and there was a whole section on the lament, which uses a specific register but like Indian classical music, it’s only up to the lamenter to create lines melodic,” Romus said. “We’ll do some of those pieces, and then we’ll create the whole sequel at SF Music Day.”
Many other musicians featured in the West Oakland Sessions are internationally renowned artists. Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg was instrumental in the radical Jewish musical movement in the late 1980s and has been a creative catalyst in the Bay Area jazz scene ever since. He performs February 20 with Porch Concert Material, a new trio featuring guitarist Liberty Ellman and drummer Gerald Cleaver, New York heavyweights who have recently joined the faculty of the California Jazz Conservatory.
San Rafael tenor saxophonist and vocalist Richard Howell performs with his band Sudden Changes on February 27. His thorough mastery of blues, R&B and various jazz idioms was honed during his years touring with stars like Etta James and Chaka Khan. . Sudden Changes’ latest release is a multi-generational affair featuring piano maestro Frederick Harris, bassist and Oaktown Jazz Workshop manager Ravi Abcarian, percussionist David Frazier, trombonist Jasim Perales, violinist Miles Quale and drummer Elé Salif Howell (Richard’s son and a force in New York who performed with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane).
One of the musicians Guarneri consulted about the series was Oakland guitarist Karl Evangelista, a graduate of Mills College’s vaunted music program. “He and Jazz in the Neighborhood see that the music emanating from this tradition of experimentation is very much ingrained in the fabric of Bay Area jazz,” he said. “They wanted to give this phenomenon some degree of exposure.”
Evangelista performs with a new trio on March 13 with saxophonist Larry Ochs and drummer Donald Robinson, who have worked and recorded extensively together as a duo, including last year’s acclaimed ESP-Disk release
A civil right. While they’ve been playing in sessions with Evangelista for several years, this is the trio’s first public performance.
Like Richard Howell’s Sudden Changes, this is clearly a multi-generational situation “where there’s a lot of shared language,” Evangelista said. “I know their duo very well and I am consulted for the curation of this series. They are perfect for representing the experimental free improvisation community. These are players with a deserved reputation as die-hard free-thinking improvisers. Combined with a young Mills-trained musician like myself, I’d like to think it’s a synthesis.
While Mills and UC Berkeley’s Center for New Music Audio Technologies (CNMAT) have attracted hundreds of adventurous musicians to the East Bay over the years, there is little institutional support for performance. This is a scene that manifests itself in shop windows, which rarely last more than a few years. Since the turn of the century, major sites in Oakland have included 21 Grand, Studio Grand and, for one brief and glorious year, Duende. In Berkeley, Beanbender’s and the Berkeley Arts Festival, a series of downtown venues that Bonnie Hughes snatched from developers to use as temporary venues, were essential spaces, while there is hope the Starry Plow and the Ivy Room in Albany will once again feature improvisational music. in the programmatic mix.
In Oakland today, venue options for experimental music are threadbare, with the Temescal Arts Center being one of the only pre-pandemic holdouts. Jazz in the Neighborhood is in talks to hold a concert series there in April and is looking to fund some upgrades. With an extra option or two on top of the Dresher Ensemble Studio, the scrappy scene can thrive on a shoestring.
“It doesn’t have to be lavish at all, but it has to be a space where people feel comfortable playing and want to come and listen,” Guarneri said. “He jumped from place to place over the years. Everyone is always looking for that storefront.
Tickets for the West Oakland Concert Series at Dresher Ensemble Studio in Oakland can be found here. Directions to the studio will be provided upon purchase. Proof of vaccination is required.