All Ears

In ‘Rusalka,’ water nymphs, a frog king, and humanity’s destructive nature

Rachel Willis‐Sørensen as Rusalka. Photo by Cory Weaver

ONSTAGE Leah Hausman worked on Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka with Sir David McVicar five years ago for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Now she is directing the revival version of his production at the San Francisco Opera (June 16-28). The piece sticks inside you, she says, and she calls getting to use her background in dance and movement in the story of a water nymph falling in love with a prince and wanting to be human, “delicious.”

The Czech opera is a great story, Hausman says, rich with folklore and myth. “We all love a fairy tale, and it’s so simple and bold,” she said. “It’s full of mystery and magic.”

Hausman said she enjoyed digging into the folklore and archetypal figures in the story. Rusalka means “unquiet dead being”: unlike mermaids, water nymphs have legs, not tails, and can leave the water to sit in trees. Hausman thinks Rusalka’s father, the water goblin, Vodník, and the witch, Ježibaba, also have fascinating stories.

“All the characters come out of a big history,” Hausman said. “Vodník is the frog king and the father of all the water. He can be terrifying as well as playful. The wood sprites tease and poke at him, at their peril. He can swallow them up. He’s got a dangerous side.”

Ježibaba, the guardian of the forests, is also called Baba Yaga. “She’s like the old bag lady who lives in the woods,” Hausman said. “She has a big history in Europe and Celtic myths. They list all the amazing things she can do, like turn a man to a monster and a monster to a man.”

The staging of this Rusalka shows the harm humans do to nature, with the beautiful pond in the forest dammed, carcasses of forest creatures that have been hunted, and a storm ripping through the forest and destroying it.

The first image we see in the opera is of a beautiful painting of nature, which puts us into the world of representing nature, rather than being part of it, Hausman says.  

Director Leah Hausman

“It’s really there and we don’t ignore it in any way,” Hausman said about the divide between man and nature. “The characters speak about it so vividly. When she asks to become a human, instead of going ‘Oh, what a great idea,’ Vodník is shook to the core. For the world of nature, humans are nothing but full of destruction. Baba Yaga says the only way a human can be a human is by shedding each other’s blood.”

The story of Rusalka seems relevant now, Hausman says.

“There are big divides in their world, and somebody converting to the other side is a really big deal,” she said. “The gamekeeper is freaked out by Rusalka because she comes from the world of witches and witchcraft. It’s a really rightwing attitude of ‘let’s get all those people out of the palace and drive them away.’ It’s a so-called comedy, but it’s really dark.”

Rachel Willis‐Sørensen as Rusalka and Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince in ‘Rusalka.’ Photo by Cory Weaver

The cast for Rusalka includes soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen singing the title role for the first time, and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Ježibaba and bass Kristinn Sigmundsson as Vodnik. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who’s the Prince, has played the part several times. 

The prince is a difficult role, Hausman thinks. 

“It could just be the asshole prince, the guy you really hate, but I didn’t want that,” she said. “There’s something so ultimately human about him, and we get the fact he’s a tortured soul.”

RUSALKA
June 16- June 28
San Francisco Opera
Tickets and more information here

At 83, piano legend Larry Vuckovich recounts a ‘Fascinating Jazz Life’

Larry Vuckovich

ALL EARS Pianist and composer Larry Vuckovich has been a headliner in the Bay Area jazz scene for over 60 years. His creative approach to the music keeps on getting better.

I first interviewed Larry in 2000, and we’ve become friends over the years. I most admire his versatility. He can play hard bop, mellow ballads or a fierce Latin montuno. He plays equally well on solo piano or with a big band—and everything in between.

On June 19 at Yoshi‘s he’ll be performing one of his more popular programs, “Fascinating Jazz Life,” featuring the music of Dexter Gordon, Bobby Hutcherson, Mel Torme, Horace Silver, and Vince Guaraldi. Vuckovich doesn’t just dig out these performers’ old sheet music. He actually played with them.

“This is a tribute to all the greats I’ve been associated with over the years,” said Vuckovich in a phone interview from his home in Calistoga. “It’s my way of paying back to the jazz community.”

Larry back in the day

OLD TIME SF
Born in Montenegro, which was then part of Yugoslavia, Vuckovich and his family emigrated to the US in 1951. Larry was 14, and he went on to attend Lincoln High in San Francisco. Although he studied European classical piano, he was soon drawn to the pulsating San Francisco jazz scene.

The City was full of jazz clubs in the 1950s and ’60s. Vuckovich remembered El Patio ballroom located at Market and Van Ness, above a car dealership. “That was where the white jazz bands played,” he said, noting the segregation of the time.

He would then walk down Market Street to the Paramount Theater, which showed movies and had live performers as well. He heard drummer Louie Bellson play with Duke Ellington.

“I remember Duke played a white piano.” 

Vuckovich began sitting in with various jazz groups, and his talent soon became evident. Vuckovich—a white, immigrant kid with a strange accent and an impossible to spell name—soon found a home in the multi-cultural world of jazz.

Many of the jazz greats performed at the Blackhawk, on Turk and Hyde streets in the Tenderloin. He heard Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. He also met famous pianist Vince Guaraldi who was then playing with vibraphonist Cal Tjader.

Vuckovich became Guaraldi’s only student and frequently visited his house in Daly City. They later recorded a two piano quintet album.

In 1965, only a few years after turning professional, Vuckovich went on tour with famed vocalist Jon Hendricks, a co-founder of the seminal vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. 

Hendricks not only gave Vuckovich informal lessons in jazz history, he passed on his pro-civil rights, progressive political views.

“Don’t believe the newspapers,” was Hendricks’ succinct advice to Vuckovich.

Hendricks was a talented composer and lyricist. He became famous for co-writing the English lyrics for “Desafinado,” composed by Brazilian master Antonio Carlos Jobim.”

“I wrote it in five minutes, and the royalties sent my kids to college,” he once quipped to Vuckovich.

‘BLUE BALKAN’
Vuckovich began leading his own groups and had a big breakthrough with his 1980 album “Blue Balkan.” The recording fused jazz with Serbian, Roma (Gypsy) and other music from that region.

Balkan music “stays in your system,” he said. “I came here in 1951 but it took until the late 70s to have an inner urge and put some things down on paper.”

The title tune “Blue Balkan” reflected regional folk music, but the other inspiration came from Hungarian classical composer Bela Bartok.

“Bartok spent five years going to different villages in the Balkans and North Africa collecting melodies. He made the harmonies more modern. He really knew the music.”

“Blue Balkan” really stands the test of time and sounds as innovative today as it did nearly 40 years ago. But at the time, Vuckovich didn’t know if jazz audiences would find the music appetizing.

“It’s like eating food you don’t know,” he said. “You put it in your mouth. It’s either good or it’s not.”

TALENTED COMPOSER
Vuckovich is a talented composer. Like many musicians, he can hear a melody in his head before writing it down.

He can also remember a tune after hearing it once, assuming it isn’t too complicated. That may seem magical to us non-musicians, but he explains that most jazz tunes stick to recognizable forms and structures.

“You have to photograph it in your ear,” he said. “You can see a pattern. It goes through those keys and changes. Most of the great tunes are sophisticated, but they are not complicated.”

Larry Vuckovich turns 83 this year, but like all the jazz musicians I know, he plans to keep on performing as long as he can stumble up on stage.

“Thank God I’m feeling good,” he said. “I don’t take any medication. I eat organic greens.”

He also swears by the helpful qualities of raw garlic, which he consumes daily.

“It helps medically and keeps the vampires away.”

Larry Vuckovich presents his “Fascinating Jazz Life” program at Yoshi’s on June 19 and Filoli in Woodside on July 28.

While best known as a foreign correspondent, journalist Reese Erlich has written about jazz and blues for over 25 years. Listen online to his Jazz Perspectives podcasts.

Queercore legends Team Dresch return to swing the bat of love

ALL EARS He’s a kid. He likes wearing wigs. “What he’s looking for/He won’t find in school,” Jody Bleyle sings, her strong, declarative voice rising to a challenge in the first line and descending into disappointment on the second. It’s late on a restless night, and the boy is listening to music, looking for something he can’t seem to find.

That is, until Bleyle flips the song’s descriptive point-of-view, commanding herself, “Hey you, say what he needs to hear.” Which she does, as the music turns inside out in a way that captures self-recognition and affirmation, sending shivers up the spine: “Queer sex is great/ It’s fun as shit/ Don’t worry Jesus is dead/ And god don’t exist/ And swearing is fun/ It’s funner than piss/ That it’s stupid is a cruel and classist myth.”

The kid is Psychic Al, a character in “Musical Fanzine,” the penultimate song on Team Dresch’s 1996 album Captain My Captain. Psychic Al would be in his mid-to-late 30s today. As for Team Dresch, how applicable is their music to the year 2019? We’re about to find out, as just months since Bikini Kill’s brief but celebrated reunion shows, the group are set to tour and also re-release their two albums, Personal Best (1995) and Captain My Captain, as well as a singles collection, Choices, Chances, Changes. (They’ll be performing June 22 at Bottom of the Hill.)

There’s another answer to the question of how relevant Team Dresch are today, and that answer is plenty. There is no equivalent band to “the team” on the musical landscape today. Queer and especially trans and women’s rights are under attack in the Trump era. The Personal Best song “Hate the Christian Right” and Captain My Captain song “I’m Illegal” could apply to the state of being female in the South and Midwest, where growing waves of anti-abortion legislation are robbing women of autonomy, including in response to crimes such as rape and incest. The present-day picture is scary and infuriating and demands the sort of direct statements and actions that have always been core elements of Team Dresch’s overall project.

But Team Dresch aren’t just relevant in terms of all-queer lineup and explicit politics. They’re also radical in sheerly musical terms—this is a band that unites punk energy and explosiveness with melodic pop immediacy and Shudder To Think-esque math rock complexity to create roiling songs that sometimes go through a series of metamorphoses before reaching a conclusion. Next to what they’ve made, a lot of today’s punk- and garage-influenced music sounds basic. There’s even some unique ingenuity in the group’s name, which recasts the fractiousness that defines so many groups into a mutually supportive team formation, with eldest member Donna Dresch functioning as a wise captain of sorts while Bleyle and Kaia Wilson trade off vocals.

If boygenius is a female supergroup today, Team Dresch certainly functions as one. Queercore or homocore true pioneers Fifth Column even wrote a song called “Donna” about guitar and bass goddess Dresch, who played with proto-grunge dudes Screaming Trees and helped forge Olympia’s celebrated punk scene through the zine and label Chainsaw, the latter of which released Sleater-Kinney’s galvanizing 1996 album Call the Doctor. The sole female member of Hazel, Bleyle had her own label, Candyass, which released Free to Fight, a genre-spanning compilation devoted to teaching fundamentals of self-defense to women and queers. Before Team Dresch, Wilson fronted her own band, Adickdid.

The film Personal Best is an Oregon- and NorCal coast-set 1982 movie that includes soft-lit lesbian love scenes, women’s steam room banter, a Bruce Jenner lookalike, a fag joke, athletic montages set to everything from the Doobie Brothers to marching bands, and Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly as an iconic tortured duo: the straight woman with same-sex leanings and the the lesbian who knows her identity. With a winking nod to the movie in its on-the-mark flirty cover art and the straight girl kiss-off song “Freewheel,” Team Dresch’s Personal Best moves from anthems (“She’s Amazing”) to dedications (“Fake Fight”) to a song that’s the sonic sister of Lizzie Borden’s radical 1983 movie Born In Flames, “#1 Chance Pirate TV,” where Bleyle moves from reassurance to defiance on the thrilling final lines: “Sometimes it feels alright/Like when you rip up a picture of the Pope.”

One of Team Dresch’s innovations is in the structure of its songs. Vocal baton-passes within a single composition were a commonly uncommon trait of Northwest women’s bands of the era, such as Excuse 17 and, of course, Sleater-Kinney. The approach reached one zenith of dual or dueling complexity in the title track of the latter’s 1998 album The Hot Rock. But Team Dresch mine similar territory earlier on Captain My Captain’s “The Council” and “Yes I Am Too, But Who Am I Really?,” a femme-butch dialogue of sexual freedom where Wilson’s proto-pup pleas of “Boss me around/Please, I want you to” are met by Bleyle’s command “I wanna watch you lose control.”

Heroism in sound—and friendship and erotics and solidarity too—Captain My Captain is filled with such moments. Marked by present-tense lyrical assertions, built over drummer Melissa York’s rapid and faultless tempo changes, it’s a conversation between two vocalists with attractive voices: Wilson’s shifts from shy confession to screaming rebellion, Bleyle’s present-tense pivots from sharp sarcasm to the very embodiment of seizing power. Electric moments abound, as Wilson nimbly navigates the pitfalls of a relationship in “107” and Bleyle faces agoraphobia with the help of her girlfriend in the direct “Don’t Try Suicide,” the band’s most popular song online, thanks in part to its use in the 2000 documentary Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street.

Captain My Captain opens with a snippet of phone conversation between Bleyle and pioneering punk dyke folksinger Phranc, who is then honored as the “Uncle Phranc” of an affirming queer family set against an emotionally manipulative mother in the song that follows. Sometimes it takes an uncle to impart necessary advice, such as not to fuck with straight girls and not to take pills. Speaking of necessity, just how necessary is Team Dresch’s return? The question is answered with typical clarity by a couplet at the end of the song that began this article, “Musical Fanzine”: “Sometimes I can’t remember why I want to live/Then I think of all the freaks, and I don’t want to miss this.”

I recently got in touch with Team Dresch’s Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson to discuss the group’s plentiful dynamics – bold and direct song titles over winding or even oblique lyrics, to cite just one example – and the feelings that come with a reunion.

48 HILLS What’s it like returning to the songs today as listeners, as the songwriters and performing them?

KAIA WILSON It’s like riding the most amazing gay-ass bike.

It’s an honor, it’s amazing, and it’s also so fun. We all love each other (we are family) and we have the most incredible people who like our music and come to our shows to feel the loud distorted celebration of queer love.

JODY BLEYLE Playing the songs feels even better than it used to because we’re better players and we love each other more. It’s so fun to be loud and sweaty together. Listening to the songs can be more complicated because it’s just me alone with my ears and thoughts, but every time I listen I appreciate more what great musicians my bandmates are.

48H Different bands in the NW at the time traded off vocals, but in Team Dresch it really feels like a passing of the baton. Was there a point when you hit upon the dual vocal approach, and how do you feel it developed in the band over time?

KW Our band just shared the spirit of the punk message we were all attracted to, which for us was all about making shit up, sharing equally in all the collaborations, and not following “rules” of the mainstream song makers. Also, it adds so much to the dynamics of our songs to mix up vocals like we do, and to get both singers’ voices in some of our songs is the pinnacle of that.

JB It evolved as we wrote more songs. The heart of the band is that original need to find each other, so we’ve always worked towards collaboration, even though it can be hard.

48H What were your favorite bands then, and what/who do you listen to now?

JB Then: Joni Mitchell, Ut, Throwing Muses, Queen Latifah, Soundgarden, Suzanne Vega, Tone Dogs, Patti Smith, Public Enemy, Kate Bush, fIREHOSE, Everything But the Girl – and all the friend bands that we were lucky to play with so many times. I still listen to those bands, and let’s see, now I listen to Elite Beat, Janelle Monáe, Lizzo, Roseblood, Gillian Frances, and the new Versus EP!

KW Then: Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Versus, Slant 6, Cold Cold Hearts, Come. Now: Same as before, add Lizzo, H.C. McEntire, Janelle Monáe and [some] awesome new bands in PDX – Roseblood and Hurry Up.

48H Can you tell me about the character of Psychic Al and the inspiration behind him?

JB He’s my brother! He was probably 14 or 15 when I wrote those lyrics. He came out to me and Mel [drummer Melissa York] on a Team Dresch tour around that time. We told him that he was young and that if he changed his mind we’d still love him. (He’s still gay.) I was probably projecting my own experience onto him, but I think we were all looking for things in songs and hoping that when you opened a cassette tape it would have a long paper insert filled with secrets to unfold.

48H ”Don’t Try Suicide” has been used in the documentary Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street, and has reached a lot of listeners online. Do you hear much feedback from new listeners about that song?

JB We do. It’s a deep and painful way to connect with people. We’re often asked whether we think it’s easier to grow up LGBTQI+ now and to come out, and sure, it’s easier on paper, but that doesn’t make it easy and painless and uncomplicated for each real person.

48H Songs like “Hate the Christian Right,“ “I’m Illegal” and “To the Enemies of Political Rock” feel very applicable to the present moment. How does it feel to be reemerging in and engaging with the music industry and overall political climate right now?

KW It’s weird, sad, but not totally surprising that so many of our more directly political songs are as relevant today as they were 25 years ago.

I think our band has this lovely musical/activism chemistry, and that it would be such a waste for us not to step up to the plate right now during Trump fucker years, and take our swing at this horror show of the political Right; even if we are swinging our bat of love, for queers, for all marginalized folks, because love and creating a space to feel alive, connected and empowered is as important as when we say fuck you. But also, we are gonna make sure to say fuck you and keep fighting.

Jody’s lyric in “Yes I Am Too, But Who Am I Really”—”some people get it, lots more people need it”—sums it up for the struggle, through all the eras, since whenever humans started being dicks.

JB The political climate is horrifying and the more I act against it, the better I feel. I’m on the fundraising team for the Sunrise Movement in Portland. Sunrise is a youth-led movement to turn the Green New Deal into a reality. They’re brilliant and inspiring and working strategically to create a world that will be not horrifying – it will be a party that you don’t want to leave. To me, playing with Team Dresch right now is a chance to give some love and soak up some love and help build the Sunrise Movement. And it’s really really fun to play music and jump around with [drummer] Marcéo [Martinez], Mel, Kaia, and Donna in every political climate.

TEAM DRESCH
June 22, 8:30pm, $15/$17
Bottom of the Hill, SF. 
More info here. 

Time is on Passion Pit’s side, as classic ‘Manners’ hits 10

Photo by Jean Claude Billmaier

ALL EARS When Michael Angelakos first toured Manners, the 2009 debut of his then-rising project Passion Pit, he couldn’t hit the high notes. A side effect of the anti-psychotic medication Seroquel, it turns out, is paralyzing your vocal cords. 

Angelakos was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 17 and speaks so candidly about his mental health as to often surprise interviewers. “When I was making this record, I didn’t think I was going to be alive much longer,” he tells me, rather offhandedly, of Manners. 

Manners came out on May 15, 2009. Now, Angelakos is taking the album on tour for its 10th anniversary, backed by a crack squad of musicians tasked with performing songs that haven’t been played live in nearly a decade. 

“It’s not like I’ve been very positive about touring in the past,” says the New Jersey-born, Boston-based musician. “But it’s jarringly therapeutic and strangely easy and fun getting back in the rehearsal and playing these songs.”

The tour kicks off in Tempe, Arizona on April 30 and includes a San Francisco stop on May 5 at the Masonic. The run wraps up May 25 in Washington, D.C., with Chicago’s Riviera Theatre the venue for the album’s true anniversary.

Compared to the blunt lyrics on later albums like Gossamer and Kindred, Manners is a little more poetic. I asked Angelakos if returning to these songs is easier because the lyrics aren’t so directly reflective of his experiences.

“To me, that stuff actually conjures more specific emotional spaces than the more diary-like storytelling of Gossamer,” he says. “The more abstract and the less on-the-nose I was with the lyrics, the more I feel what I was feeling then.”

Angelakos turns 32 next month. When he released the first Passion Pit EP, 2008’s Chunk of Change, he was 21 and thrust rather suddenly into stardom at the peak of indie pop’s cultural ubiquity, He made the EP as a Valentine’s Day gift for his girlfriend, but friends liked what they heard, and word spread fast around the campus of his alma mater, Emerson College.

The project found enough fans to enable Angelakos to drop out of college and pursue music full-time. But like many bedroom projects airlifted onto the national stage in the post-MySpace era, Passion Pit wasn’t quite prepared for fame.

For one, there was the experience of putting on a façade at shows. (“That’s literally the title of the album—manners.”) In a Pitchfork cover story, Angelakos described playing a packed SXSW set for enthralled Columbia executives before breaking down in tears backstage. He got signed but immediately checked into a hospital after returning from Austin. 

In 2012, at the peak of Passion Pit’s success, Angelakos canceled much of the Gossamer tour to seek further treatment. He’s described guzzling liters of liquor a day during the sessions for the record, barely aware of what he was doing, and regularly attempting or threatening suicide.

Then there was the response to the music itself. Passion Pit’s records got a lot of good reviews, including praise from Pitchfork at the peak of its influence. But some music fans objected to the singer’s falsetto. Others dismissed them offhand because their neon synths put them in line with popular bands like Phoenix and MGMT.

Critics even faulted Angelakos for being honest about his mental health. “They thought it was a way of selling the record,” he recalls. “Ironically, it kinda did because it got attention and was important to people.” 

But he always had a feeling in the back of his mind that “at some point, people would get it and the people who publicly dismissed it would come around to it.” 

Now Manners, as luck would have it, is something of a classic in the indie-pop canon.

Angelakos is excited about Just Like Heaven, the Long Beach festival he’s playing the day before the SF stop, whose lineup is devoted to bands who hit it big around the same time as, or earlier than, Passion Pit—Phoenix, MGMT, Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear. He doesn’t seem too miffed about being considered an act from a bygone era and might even agree with that assessment.

“We were one of the last bands to pop off the way we did,” he says. “That was the end of the music industry as we know it. Calling it an industry now is too much credit. We don’t make CDs anymore. Bands don’t get signed the same way. We were one of the last ones.” 

Besides, Angelakos has a fondness for Manners. He calls it his most “misunderstood” record—though he points out that, because he’s not exactly shy about divulging the details, there isn’t much to misunderstand about Passion Pit. 

“I’ve always been proud of the fact I finished it,” he says, perhaps implying that he wasn’t even sure how much longer he’d be alive while making it. “But now, I’m like, ‘I can’t believe I pulled off this record.’ It’s pretty ambitious for a debut record.”

Passion Pit continues to release music, most recently 2017’s excellent Tremendous Sea of Love. But with the initial shock of fame gone and the expectations for the project a little less strenuous than when following a hot major-label debut, the singer’s found a little more clarity. 

“After turning 30, I’ve been figuring out who I am more than I ever had before,” he says. “I never had time to do that in my 20s.” 

PASSION PIT: ‘MANNERS’ 10TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR
Sat/5, 8pm, $39.50+
The Masonic, SF. 
Tickets and more info here

Please Do Not Fight reunion collects a scattered scene

Please Do Not Fight. Photo by Aaron Blumenshine

ALL EARS Pursuing music often begins with a simple realization: that it could be you up on that stage. And before he started the Redwood City rock band Please Do Not Fight in the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, Zen Zenith was just a kid staring goggle-eyed at the pop-punk bands that dominated Bay Area clubs in the late ‘90s. 

The Matches, with whom he’s still friends, wowed him in particular. “They had rehearsed moves and such incredible stage presence,” he says. “There’s one song where people get down low. These are clichéd things now, but it was the first time I’d ever seen it. I was like, ‘how do they know how to do this? How do they know we’re all gonna jump at the same time?’”

After playing in a few short-lived bands, Zenith formed Please Do Not Fight in 2007, at age 24. That year, the project released its sole full-length, Leave It All Behind. Counterbalancing pop-punk sugar rush with spiky, sophisticated lyrics and a chilly, lonesome atmosphere, it’s the kind of album one could see inspiring the same underground cult love as American Football’s debut or Duster’s early records.

Please Do Not Fight and many of the Bay Area bands they performed with (Picture Atlantic, Dizzy Balloon, Rin Tin Tiger, Finish Ticket, Bird by Bird) rejected the self-deprecating scuzz of the contemporaneous SF garage rock movement and embraced a friendly, clean-cut approach. Mike Shirley-Donnelly of Curious Quail, which shares multi-instrumentalist Erin Machado with Please Do Not Fight, met Zenith at a Picture Atlantic show—a band he was first drawn to because they made Dungeons & Dragons references onstage.

Zenith was never into the “cocky rock-star thing,” as he calls it. But with his imposing physical presence, full-throated roar, and confessional, clearly annunciated lyrics, Zenith was certainly a magnetic frontman. 

To Zenith, being a “frontman” doesn’t mean what it used to mean. “It was becoming more about sitting in front of your computer and being on social media,” he says. “It was all recording stuff on your own and then getting the band to do it later. The thing I loved about it—getting together with your friends and being social—was less and less what the work was.” 

After releasing two more EPs, Zenith disbanded Please Do Not Fight in 2013. Initially he intended to rebrand the project and work with the same musicians in a different musical milieu, but instead he moved from Redwood City to L.A. and focused on hosting and promoting shows, taking what he describes as an “extended breakup from music.”

He and Please Do Not Fight guitarist Geoff McCann started a project he describes as a mix of musical and stand-up performance. But it was mostly a private endeavor for kicks, and when friends asked him to pick up the guitar at the shows he hosted, he remained stubborn. 

Yet something itched in the back of his mind in spite of himself, and soon he found himself queuing up old videos of the band. 

* * *

Please Do Not Fight will reunite Friday, April 26 at Bottom of the Hill. It had to be Bottom of the Hill, Zenith says—the venue where he saw bands like the Get Up Kids as a teen and, later, where he would play once his band made enough connections to play real club gigs instead of bowling alleys and restaurants. 

“At first I was like ‘No, thats never, ever gonna happen,’ he says of the reunion. “But enough people asked that I started talking to Geoff and Erin and Kubes about it.”

Machado and drummer Brian Kubes are the other two members of the core band. They agreed, but a new complication arose: Kubes still lived in LA, while Machado lives in Vancouver. 

The full band—including Justin San Souci of the Matches, who continues the band’s long tradition of revolving bassists—will only be able to rehearse once in the same room prior to the show. 

Zenith isn’t worried, though. In LA, he claims, bands are expected to learn their parts separately in between practices as opposed to the more rehearsal-oriented approach he finds in the Bay Area. And Machado is a veteran of remote rehearsals and recording, as Curious Quail’s members are likewise dispersed across the country.

“I’m not worried about it,” Zenith says of this unconventional pre-show preparation. “And I’m probably the person who plays music the least out of the four of us.” 

The show isn’t just a Please Do Not Fight reunion but a reunion of the “old scene.” Curious Quail, who played frequently with Please Do Not Fight before Shirley-Donnelly moved to the Coachella Valley, will perform earlier in the evening. Talk, the other opener, contains several members of the defunct Picture Atlantic. 

The scene to which Please Do Not Fight belonged exists today in a scattered form, and some of its individual members have found fame on their own. Kevin Sullivan of Rin Tin Tiger performs as Field Medic and recently signed to vaunted indie label Run for Cover. Louie Diller of Dizzy Balloon found minor chart success with the band Holychild. Finish Ticket are signed to Elektra Records and have played with acts like Ed Sheeran but released their last album in 2013.

Please Do Not Fight will probably never reunite again. The geographical distances among the band members are too vast for regular reunions to be a thing, and Machado is committed to her dual gigs as Quail member and music teacher. But while preparing with McCann and San Souci, Zenith began to feel some of that old jones for music creeping back in and hopes to use the reunion as a springboard for something new—most likely a solo project, he’s concluded.

“When I was playing music it wasn’t just about playing music,” he says. “I also got a social life from it. It helped me with my mental health because writing songs is very therapeutic. I got exercise out of it by jumping around onstage. I’m realizing in the last couple years how much benefit music has brought to my life, and with this show I’m excited to do more music to bring all those things back in.”

PLEASE DO NOT FIGHT, CURIOUS QUAIL, TALK
Fri/26, 8:30 p.m., $15-$18
Bottom of the Hill, SF.
Tickets and more info here

Contemporary fado queen Mariza comes to SFJAZZ

Fado, the mournful and soul-stirring music of Portugal, is coming to San Francisco this week. Whether you’re a fado fan or new to the genre, it’s time to hear Mariza, one of the world’s great fado singers. (She’s here April 12-14 at SFJAZZ.)

Rooted in the early 19th century, fado draws on some of the same inspiration as American jazz and blues.

“Fado was born almost the same way as blues because of the slaves and what they were singing,” Mariza explained to me during an interview in Barcelona, Spain and in a subsequent email. “They were singing about feelings of life. Fado explores those same feelings.” 

Like the early days of jazz in the US, fado was a popular urban music style distained by the countries’ elites. The Portuguese upper crust considered fado to be the music of pimps and prostitutes.

“Fado was born by the sea, produced by the sailors and African slaves,” said Mariza. “It’s a music from the working classes.”

Fado, which translates as destiny or fate, combines European melody, African rhythm and Arabic cadences into a unique musical form. It’s a stripped-down musical style usually featuring a singer, one musician playing the round-shaped Portuguese guitar and another playing classic guitar. The singer carries the plaintive melody while the guitars provide rhythm and some melodic interludes. 

Mariza explained that in the early days, fado lyrics served as a “newspaper with singing. People didn’t know how to read. So they used music to spread the news.”

Of course conditions are different today. She reads a lot of poetry to gain inspiration for new songs. “I work with composers and writers who compose for me. Then I choose what I think is the message.”

Mariza, whose given name is Marisa dos Reis Nunes, was born in 1973 in what was then the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. She moved to Portugal with her family at the age of three.

Mariza, who is of mixed Portuguese and African descent, periodically visits Mozambique. “I always go there when I can to get in touch with my family, to be in touch with my roots. With age I feel more this African side calling, it [is] part of who I am.”

Mariza started singing fado in Lisbon when she was five years old. “My parents had a little tavern. In the neighborhood where I lived fado was a kind of living school of music.”

Then as a teen she started listening the popular rock bands of the time such as U2, Supertramp and the Rolling Stones. She wanted to sing rock. “I was trying, but my English wasn’t very good. I didn’t understand it. Fado was always my first love.”

In Argentina, tango lost popularity among the youth for many years until undergoing a revival in the 1980s. To this day some young Brazilians consider bossa nova old geezer music. So it’s not surprising that fado his seen popular peaks and valleys in Portugal.  

Fado luminaries such as Amalia Rodrigues (1920-99) brought legitimacy to fado and modernized the art form. But the next generation listened to more rock and roll than traditional Portuguese music.

Now the young generation shows their emotional support for fado, said Mariza, part of their appreciation of Portuguese culture. “They are trying to protect this music, trying to pass the message.”

“You don’t’ have schools to learn this music,” she continued. “You learn on the streets. It’s passed down from older generations.” 

Mariza noted that fado is part of the Portuguese culture, an urban music that expresses emotion and true feelings. “Even if you don’t speak a word of Portuguese it is difficult not to be touched by the intensity of fado.”

For non-Portuguese speakers, fado can sound uniformly mournful. While there are happy, up-tempo fados, the genre does indeed feature a lot of lament and longing. In fact, the Portuguese concept of saudade (longing) plays a central role in the music. 

For example, Mariza sings “Ja Me Deixou” (He Already Left Me). The song’s protagonist suffers a lot because of a love who left. He says the “saudade walks with me.” But suddenly the lover returns and the longing goes away. “It has a happy ending.”

Fado has become one of the most popular musical styles in Portugal, and has spread throughout Europe and the Americas. But for Mariza, who regularly plays large jazz clubs and concert halls, fado always takes her back to her parent’s small bar.

“If you go to Lisbon, to a taverna, you see people commemorating life with a bottle of red wine. Sometimes you listen to a very sad fado. But they are enjoying life. They are cleaning the soul. Then everyone is smiling and happy.”

Mariza
April 12-14
SFJAZZ 
Tickets and more info here. 

While best known as a foreign correspondent, journalist Reese Erlich has written about jazz and blues for over 25 years. Listen online to his Jazz Perspectives podcasts.

San Pablo’s Los Cenzontles ramps up its Mexican rhythms

Davina, a Los Cenzontles student, strums on stage. All photos courtesy of Los Cenzontles

ALL EARS There are certain well-worn channels through which culture tends to move. Socioeconomically dominant countries export cultural products, regional art forms are picked up by the global mainstream to be re-appropriated. From center to periphery and back again, the cultural commodification process rarely works to benefit creators of regional art.

But the Bay Area is known for institutions that look to buck these trends. From Oakland’s La Peña Cultural Center to the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, Brava Theater to the annual Son Jarocho Festival, the region is blessed with many places where cultural bridges between the US and Latin America are built, community-to-community connections that sidestep the commercialization or fetishism of regional art and center that art’s creators.

San Pablo’s Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy, with its youth group founded back in 1987, certainly figures on this list of key cultural hubs. But when asked if he thinks of the Bay Area as a center for Chicano and Latino art, its founder Eugene Rodriguez has cause to bridle at the word.

Los Cenzontles’ band (from left) Emiliano Rodriguez, Lucina Rodriguez, Fabiola Trujillo, Eugene Rodriguez.

“I don’t think in terms of centers,” he explains. “There is so much variety and diversity within the Latino community.” Eugene sees the work that Los Cenzontles does as tending to “represent the working class immigrant cultures, which are all over the county in often isolated pockets. The idea of a center is more of an urban concept.”

Los Cenzontles is an important entry point for people of all ages looking to learn about Mexican arts and culture. For over three decades, it’s been a place where young people can come to learn traditional music, dance, and song.

Some graduates of the youth program are now members of Los Cenzontles’ official band, which has worked with other world-class musicians—Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, Ry Cooder, The Chieftains, and Jackson Browne among them—in creating work that not only reflects Mexican regional genres like son jarocho and huapango, but also resonates as a distinctly Californian evolution of those sounds.

“Our approach is also to dig deeply into our roots, but to also explore our connections to other roots and genres,” says Rodriguez. “This may be disorienting from a marketing point of view. But it is our journey.”

Los Cenzontles perform on a recent trip to Sonora to visit a local folkloric dance troupe.

Recently, Los Cenzontles got an upgrade. After 20 years in the same location, the school and practice-jam space got a new paint job, flooring, furnishings, and heating-ventilation system. A donation from Meyer Sound resulted in a new sound system—perfect for the “Music & Tacos” event series (next one happen Fri/22) that invites in the public for an evening of comestibles and live sounds from across the organization’s repertoire, like corridos, pirekuas, and boleros.

Lucina Rodriguez also makes for a good guide to Los Cenzontles’ work. She first came to its youth program when she was 15 years old and immersed herself in the study of zapateado, the stomping, folkloric Mexican dance. Now she not only sings and dances with its band, she is teaches movement to young students and serves as Los Cenzontles’ external education programming coordinator.

“Children in our community need a place where they feel comfortable and safe,” Lucina told 48 Hills in an email. “It’s important for children to connect and stay connected to their roots … This gives them more confidence to face the world outside the center.”

Much of Los Cenzontles’ work is based on the personal importance of cultural heritage. San Pablo’s median household income is just over half that of Oakland. If few of the community’s kids are financially privileged, at Los Cenzontles they are able to explore the richness of Chicano and Mexican past and present.

This year, members of the group and students from the Cenzontles’ youth program took a trip documented by the LA Times with singer Linda Rondstadt to visit Grupo de Danza Xunutzi in Banámichi, Sonora. That’s far from the first time Los Cenzontles have made a trip south — check 2015’s excellent Fandango: Searching for the White Monkey documentary that was made about similar cross-cultural voyages taken throughout the organization’s history. (Not to mention, a fascinating look at how young US artists come to terms with the rural realities of their beloved music genres.)

The work of Los Cenzontles has also opened paths for artists from Mexico to come to the United States, another embodiment of the group’s commitment to making sure that regional forms of Mexican art receive the support that they need to thrive in the 21st century.

Center or not, these sounds play an important role in the Cenzontles’ community and beyond, and they aim to keep it that way. As Lucina puts it; “Music doesn’t die unless we let it die.”

LOS CENZONTLES: MUSIC & TACOS
Fri/22, 7:30-9:30pm, $15
Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy, San Pablo
More info here.

From Mali to Memphis: Dee Dee Bridgewater fires up the soul of her youth

Dee Dee Bridgewater. Photo by Mark Higashimo.

ALL EARS Two of the great divas of blues and jazz will be performing in the Bay Area this coming week. It’s a wonderful opportunity not only to hear some great music, but to also enrich your appreciation of America’s original and unique musical art forms.

Some years back I had the pleasure of doing music reporting from the west African country of Mali where I interviewed Dee Dee Bridgewater. She was recording her album Red Earth, which later earned a Grammy nomination. I observed how she and local musicians fused Malian musical traditions with jazz and blues to create a unique sound.

Bridgewater told me that the musical journey was part of discovering her African roots. Malians told her she looked like a descendant of a tribe that lived in the north of the country, something later confirmed through ancestry DNA testing. 

Bridgewater told me in a recent phone interview that she still remembers the dusty red soil of Mali. “I did rediscover my roots,” she said. “Seeing the red earth made me felt I had come home.”

Bridgewater continues that voyage of discovery with her latest release Memphis … I’m Ready. She was born in Memphis and her family soon moved to Michigan. But she listened to Memphis rhythm and blues on a late night radio station. Although Bridgewater is a consummate jazz artist, recognized by the NEA as a Jazz Master, she has always considered R&B to be a co-equal form of African American music.

“I went back to Memphis because that was where I was born,” she said. “It was all part of my investigation into my past, so I can have a better understanding of who I am.”

The Memphis project, like many works of art, got its start serendipitously. Bridgewater was in the Memphis airport on the way to her rental car. She heard blasting on the airport sound system “Baby oh Baby,” the classic R&B tune sung by Carla Thomas.

“This is the music I know; why not do this?” she thought to herself. Besides, she mused, it was a chance to be a soul singer with a real backup group. “That was always a closet dream I had,” she chuckled.

Bridgewater held numerous recording sessions at the famed Royal Studios in Memphis. Al Green, Chuck Berry, and Ike & Tina Turner had all recorded there in years past. Bridgewater wanted to recreate an authentic R&B recording atmosphere.

“Royal produced a gritty sound. They weren’t going for the polished sound like Motown.”

You can hear the grit in her version of “Hound Dog.” Elvis made the lyric “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog” famous worldwide. But white audiences of the 1950s rarely heard the original version sung by “Big Momma” Willa Mae Thornton and produced by Johnny Otis. She moaned and growled in a version that, frankly, makes Elvis look like an amateur. 

Bridgewater definitely honors the black tradition. “I made a point of doing Momma Thornton’s version, not Elvis’,” she said. “I knew Elvis Presley’s name is synonymous with Memphis. I wanted to set the record straight by doing something closer to her version.”

Bridgewater’s performances feature another Elvis’ hit “Don’t Be Cruel,” but, again, in a version the King wouldn’t recognize. It turns out to be one of the most popular numbers in her club dates. 

Bridgewater certainly has no objections to commercial success. “I knew particularly the Europeans would know Elvis’ name. So there was some stratagem in picking his two songs.” 

Memphis is both a commercial and artistic success, something that might have surprised Bridgewater’s mother, who didn’t want her daughter singing the blues. Her mom passed away in 2017. 

“The blues for her represented poverty, oppression, bad life style, drugs, alcohol, and loose women. She was from the generation when African Americans moved north,” who wanted to get away from Southern traditions.

“She also had images of Africa and didn’t want me to go to Mali.” But when she heard Red Earth, she got up and danced.”

I have no doubt she would be dancing to Memphis as well.

***

Catherine Russell, another talented jazz and blues vocalist, visits San Francisco this week. She comes from jazz nobility. Her father Louis Russell was the long-time music director for Louis Armstrong. Her mother Carline Ray performed with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-woman swing band in the 1940s.

Catherine Russell has had her own successful career for over 40 years. She won a Grammy for her musical appearances in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. 

Russell just came out with a new album Alone Together. The music ranges from the silky smooth title song to a down-home version of “Is You or Ain’t You Is My Baby.” She channels Bessie Smith performing the blues tune “He May Be Your Dog, But He’s Wearing My Collar.”

 “Blues infused jazz tunes are the ones I gravitate towards,” she said, “because they enable me to freely express myself in the moment.  

Call it bluesy jazz or jazzy blues. Take your pick. Russell performs great music.

***

Dee Dee Bridgewater brings her Memphis show to Yoshi’s on March 20-21.

Catherine Russell performs songs from Alone Together and her CD Harlem on My Mind, March 24, 5 pm, at the Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room. 

———

While best known as a foreign correspondent, journalist Reese Erlich has written about jazz and blues for over 25 years. Listen online to his Jazz Perspectives podcasts.

John Pizzarelli salutes ‘swinging’ Nat King Cole at 100

ALL EARS As a young man, jazz guitarist and vocalist John Pizzarelli fell in love with the music of Nat “King” Cole.

“I bought some Cole records,” he told me in a phone interview from New York. “It was a snowing day in January, much like today. I listened and my head exploded.”

Nat Cole was a nationally known vocalist and pianist in the 1940s and ’50s. His fame lives on every Christmas when you inevitably hear him crooning the lyrics “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” 

But if you want to hear something far more sophisticated than that old chestnut, listen to Pizzarelli’s new album For Centennial Reasons: 100 Years Salute to Nat King Cole, a celebration of what would have been Cole’s 100th birthday. Pizzarelli performs Sun/3 at the Venetian Room.   

Pizzarelli noted that Cole had a silky smooth delivery but could also really swing. Cole co-wrote his first big hit, “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” with Irving Mills in 1944. 

The song portrays the struggle of a monkey who takes flight on the back of a buzzard. They’re both friends and enemies, carrying out a comic dialogue about why each shouldn’t trust the other. 

The final stanza reads:

The buzzard told the monkey, you’re choking me
Release your hold and I’ll set you free
The monkey looked the buzzard right dead in the eye and said
Your story’s touching, but it sounds like a lie

I noted that politicians love the song because it describes an evil, co-dependent relationship. One political observer wrote recently, “The Republican Party is the monkey and Donald Trump is the buzzard.” 

Laughing, Pizzarelli wouldn’t offer an opinion on either Trump or the Republicans, but he did note how the lyrics from many jazz standards have entered our everyday speech.

“It’s amazing how songs like that find their way into the vernacular,” he said. He noted that “everyone knows the phrase ‘Nice work if you can get it.’ But how many know it came from a George Gershwin song?”

Impact of segregation

Pizzarelli also admires Cole’s struggle against segregation. Cole’s celebrity status didn’t protect him from vicious racism. 

Three segregationists attacked Cole on stage in Birmingham. When he moved into the all-white Hancock Park area of Los Angeles, neighbors tried to force him out and even burned a cross on his lawn. 

Pizzarelli remembers that popular singer Margaret Whiting told him that during a TV show rehearsal, she put an arm around Cole’s shoulder. Cole told Whiting, who was white, “Don’t do that during the show, or we will lose the South.”

Cole was never an outspoken civil rights advocate like jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln or popular singer Harry Belafonte. But he was one of the first African Americans to have crossover appeal. 

His recordings sold to millions of whites at a time when record corporations segregated black music as “race records.” He was the first black host of a national TV show. 

“He was an amazing national figure,” said Pizzarelli. “I can’t believe what he went through.”

The New Album

In many ways Nat Cole’s music is a perfect fit for Pizzarelli. During a career now spanning over 30 years, Pizzarelli is known for performing accessible, popular jazz. He often interprets the great American Song Book, but also performs the music of such popular contemporary composers as Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell.

In Cole’s music, he’s found the right combination of melodic grace and African American rhythms. Pizzarelli even modeled his first trio after Cole’s.

A typical jazz trio features piano, bass and drums. The drummer keeps the beat and the pianist plays the melody. Cole dropped the drums and brought in a guitar. Pizzarelli duplicates that instrumentation in his current album.

“When I play in a band with drums, I can lay out [rest],” he explained. “The drums control the rhythm. Without the drums, the guitar plays that role.” 

Pizzarelli plays rhythm guitar, a style in which the guitarist  constantly strums the strings to drive the beat, only occasionally changing chords for melodic effect.

“The guitar is the propulsion,” he said. That driving force is key to the foot tapping rhythms of several of the uptempo songs on the album such as “Nat King Cool” and “Route 66.”

But the constant strumming can really play havoc with your hands, according to numerous guitarists I’ve interviewed.

“Rhythm guitar is like running,” explained Pizzarelli. The guitarist has to begin with slow strumming, like a runner stretches.

“It’s like warming up with a trumpet. You build up a resistance to being tired.”

There is one area, in my opinion, that Pizzarelli can’t compete with Nat Cole: the voice. Cole delivered each note like velvet being laid down on satin sheets. Pizzarelli sings more like comfy wool flannel.

Don’t get me wrong. Pizzarelli can sing. He models his voice on Chet Baker, the 1950s trumpeter and vocalist with a soft and fragile delivery. Pizzarelli has a pleasant voice, but he’s no Nat Cole. But, then again, who is? Pizzarelli is a talented singer who interprets the standards with his own style.

JOHN PIZARELLI
Sun/3, 3:30pm (and 7:30pm with his wife, Jessica Molaskey), $65
Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room, SF.
Tickets and more info here

While best known as a foreign correspondent, journalist Reese Erlich has written about jazz for more than 25 years. Listen online to his Jazz Perspectives podcasts.

The raver soul of Yoshi Flower

ALL EARS Two tracks into Yoshi Flower’s debut mixtape American Raver we hear a voicemail from his dad. It’s a shortcut to pathos we’ve heard on a million albums, from Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city to recent albums by Aaron Carter and Mike Posner. It’s easy for the uninformed to roll their eyes—except Yoshi’s “dad” is 26-year-old comedian Brandon Wardell, who regales Yoshi with criticisms in a voice that sounds almost like someone’s happy-go-lucky pops.

“We recorded like 20 minutes of it,” Yoshi told me over the phone—though only a few short snatches made it onto the mixtape. Both performers were quite stoned, and judging by the singer’s tortoise-slow drawl and lyrical fixation on chemical consumption, it’s not an uncommon state to find him in. 

“[Wardell] was like, ‘I don’t want your mother to hear this, but luckily you’re not famous at all, and nobody hears your music unless it’s a Spotify curated playlist,'” he says. “He was going in on me. He’s like a happy cynic.” 

Those words could just as easily describe Yoshi Flower, who’ll be playing at the Rickshaw Stop Fri/22 as part of San Francisco’s long-running weekly Popscene indie dance party.

The Detroit artist presents himself in his music as sort of as half-hedonist, half-guru. “Sometimes I wanna listen to Lil Pump, sometimes I wanna listen to Deepak Chopra,” he tells me, and he comes off a little like both—the former most prominently in how his music is explicitly youth-oriented. “It’s not for people who have guns and mortgages,” he quips.

Born Josh Smith, Yoshi came of age in Detroit’s underground rave scene and saw legendary local DJs like Moodymann and Carl Craig as a teenager while gobbling all manner of drugs: nitrous, molly, acid. 

“None of us had money to go to a festival,” he says. “So by the time we were able to even go to one they were all mad expensive, so we’d just go to warehouses and it was very freeing. Nobody had to be a certain type of way. All you had to do was feel the bass.”

His raver bona fides form a strong part of his artistic identity (the track titles of American Raver spell out a pledge of allegiance to “the rave”). But his music is worlds away from Detroit dance music. He makes pop in an omnivorous, post-Internet sense; he sings, he raps, he strums an acoustic while filling the margins with hip-hop beats and post-Diplo chipmunk vocals. It’s hard to pin down but easy to imagine on pop radio.

He first came to prominence as one-half of goth-R&B duo Gosh Pith before his manager, on a whim, cold-emailed his SoundCloud link to a promoter at Bonnaroo in 2017. They had a spot they needed to fill, and rumors about the identity of the mysterious Yoshi Flower began to spread like wildfire—not least once he and his friends put up signs around the festival grounds reading “TAKE ACID AND GO SEE YOSHI FLOWER.” 

This was the first-ever Flower gig, and he now plays the kinds of festivals he couldn’t afford growing up. But with fame comes public scrutiny, and the Wardell clips on his album could be seen as a reflection of the barrier any celebrity or proto-celebrity crosses where the whole world holds a mirror up to you. 

“A lot more people are asking me to explain myself, and I’ve realized I’m just so fucking extreme in my ways,” he says. “Either Bohemian dwelling or complete utter materialism… I meditated today with diamonds on.”  

YOSHI FLOWER, KENNYHOOPLA, PARENTZ, DJ AARON AXELSEN
Fri/22, 9pm, $13-$15
Rickshaw Stop, SF
More info here