By Andrew Gilbert
The Berkeley High jazz program is the gift that keeps on giving. Hardly a year goes by without at least a handful of excellent young musicians emerging from its ranks, and, while many head east to attend elite conservatories and music schools, Berkeley’s oversized gravitational pull often brings them back home.
Pianist Erika Oba and trumpeter Erik Jekabson hail from different Berkeley High generations, but they’ve made many of the same moves and have both recently released highly personal albums.
Oba, a member of the talent-laden class of 2004, performs Friday (tonight) at the Jazzschool, celebrating the release of her alluring new duo project with bassist Chris Bastian, “Carry On.” One of the finest trumpeters in the Bay Area, Jekabson, class of 1991, performs Tuesday at Freight & Salvage, focusing on music from his ambitious new album “Anti-Mass,” a stellar project inspired by artwork at the DeYoung Museum.
On her debut album Oba displays a gift for crafting memorable melodies and a savvy sense of space, letting her notes breath and ring. As an interactive duo with both musicians inhabiting the foreground she and Bastian engage in a series of graceful pas de deux rather than extended solos with accompaniment. They each contribute four original pieces to “Carry On,” and Oba’s music hints at her primary compositional influence, Thelonious Monk, while her keyboard touch evidences an affinity for the lustrous tone of Bill Evans.
Introduced by a mutual friend, Oba and Bastian started performing together two years ago. “Chris went to Albany High, and I knew a lot of the same people he did,” Oba says. “We played a piano/bass duo show at the Berkeley Public Library and it felt great and started developing material.
Something of a late blooming jazz artist, Oba soaked up musical information from the region’s signature programs. She started piano lessons in first grade, studying at the East Bay Center for Performing Arts, and then joined the Young Musicians Program in the fifth grade, focusing on piano and flute. Introduced to jazz by her older sister, saxophonist Hitomi Oba (who’s thriving on the Southern California scene), she started getting more interested in improvisation while attending the Oaktown Jazz Workshop’s Feather River Jazz Camp, run by trumpeter Khalil Shaheed.
She didn’t join the Berkeley High Jazz Band as a full-fledged member until her senior year, an experience that gave her a taste of the jazz festival scene and the opportunity to do a lot of composing and arranging. Her primary focus remained classical flute, and she fully intended to continue her studies on the instrument when she enrolled at Oberlin. But once in Ohio, she felt much more of an affinity for the conservatory’s jazz program, and she ended up graduating in 2009 with degrees in jazz piano and environmental studies.
Since moving back to Berkeley she’s joined the staff at the Jazzschool, teaching in the youth program, helping run the office and providing accompaniment for classes. She subs in the Montclair Women’s Big Band, and plays in the Gentleman Amateurs, a seven-piece funk band. She’s also starting a piano class at REALM Academy, joining the music program founded by fellow Berkeley High alum Peter Hargreaves.
If Oba’s new album features an ensemble stripped down to essentials, Erik Jekabson’s “Anti-Mass” (Jekab’s Music) is a lush, orchestral project featuring a sextet that balances brass and strings. For Tuesday’s performance at the Freight, he’ll be joined by Smith Dobson V on drums and vibes, violist Charith Premawardhana, a driving force behind the hugely influential Classical Revolution organization, and Grammy Award-winning violinist Mads Tolling, late of Turtle Island Quartet. Bassist Peter Barshay and tenor saxophonist Michael Zilber fill out the band, taking over roles conceived, respectively, for John Wiitala and Dayna Stephens.
“I love what strings can do,” Jekabson says. “I love the fact they don’t have to breathe, and I can write endless lines. I really wanted to put together a group that sounded different from your average jazz sextet, with a broad and varied palette. Smith can double on vibes and that was something I wanted to take advantage of. Mads is a virtuoso jazz violinist and also a fantastic classical player, and Charith is a great improviser too.”
Aside from two brief interludes, all of the album’s 11 tracks were inspired by the experience of walking in and around the DeYoung Museum, either by close observation of specific pieces or the building’s environs. Supported by a grant from San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music, the album explores a wide array of moods, grooves and textures. The centerpiece is the title track, which was commissioned by the DeYoung Museum and Intersection For the Arts. Jekabson was struck by “Anti-Mass,” a haunting, abstract sculpture by English artist Cornelia Parker constructed out of wire and “the charred remains of a Southern Baptist church with a predominantly African American congregation, which was destroyed by arsonists,” according to the DeYoung website.
“It’s an incredibly arresting piece visually,” Jekabson says. “When you find out it was the remnant of a black church in the South destroyed by arson, it takes on social/political overtones. I’d never seen a piece structured like that, and trying to capture it in music came really easily.
“I took it pretty literally, started with trying to capture the explosion of flame in music. There’s a minor key dirge, and I evoke the hanging shards of wood with slowly moving pizzicato notes with upward motion, leading to rebirth. The wood is reborn into an artistic statement, and the music turns into a hymn. I got really inspired by that piece, and it set this whole project in motion.”
Jekabson is part of a formidable lineage of Berkeley High trumpeters that includes predecessors Steve Bernstein and Peck Allmond and later alumni Jonathan Finlayson and Ambrose Akinmusire. After graduating from Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1994, he moved to New Orleans, where he immersed himself in numerous facets of the city’s vibrant musical culture. He co-led the New World Funk Ensemble, and led his own jazz combos in high profile venues like Snug Harbor. He also established an international presence, touring in France with the great French organist Eddy Louiss. Jekabson’s deep affinity for New Orleans rhythms is evident on his previous CD, 2010’s “Crescent Boulevard” (Jekab’s Music), a critically praised album featuring guitarist Mike Abraham, John Wiitala, Smith Dobson, and special guests Dayna Stephens and John Santos.
After about four years in New Orleans, Jekabson moved to Brooklyn in 1998 and continued to gain a diverse array of musical experience. He performed with the Illinois Jacquet Big Band, singer/songwriter Amy Kohn, and Justin Mullen’s Delphian Jazz Orchestra. He played in the Off-Broadway show The Jazz Singer and spent a year on the road with pop singer John Mayer. He also released his debut recording, 2002’s Intersection (Fresh Sound/New Talent), a session featuring guitarist Ben Monder, saxophonists John Ellis and Matt Otto, bassist Alexis Cuadrado and East Bay-raised drummer Mark Ferber.
Jekabson returned to the Bay Area in 2003 to pursue a Master’s Degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and since graduating has divided his time between the bandstand and the classroom, teaching at the Jazzschool, Chabot College, Cal State East Bay, and Los Medanos College. Over the past year, he’s focused on a tribute to Chet Baker, a collaboration with Smith Dobson, who reveals himself as a sensitive ballad singer. In addition to standards such as “My Funny Valentine” and “Let’s Get Lost,” Jekabson has arranged pieces from the Gerry Mulligan Quartet book and tunes inspired by Baker, such as Richie Bierach’s “Broken Wing” and his own dedication “Chetty.”
While Berkeley High jazz musicians like Jekabson and Oba tend to fly far from the nest, there’s something about the town that makes it relatively easy to come home again. Thank goodness.