Survival of the Phat-est

Pianist Jacob Aginsky fosters the new jazz evolution by embracing electronica and other musics

On a gray, rainy Saturday afternoon in downtown Berkeley, a tall, slender young man hunches over a small piano near the front window of Shattuck Avenue's La Note restaurant. He rocks slightly as he pumps the foot pedals, digging into soft, searching jazz harmonies, his matted dreadlocks tumbling out of his sweat-shirt hood and dangling perilously near the keyboard. If you listen closely, you can hear him singing quietly, in a sort of emphatic, muttering cross between Glenn Gould and Mose Allison.

Although he looks like your average scraggly native, Jacob Elijah Aginsky is one of the more dynamic young figures on the local jazz circuit, a self-described "cheerleader" for a scene that many have written off as moribund. When asked, the pianist insists that the Bay Area is still packed with a vibrant pool of talent, and that the music itself is vital and evolving. He uses his own career as an example -- Aginsky has released five solo albums in as many years and plays in over a dozen groups, ranging from the jazz-funk ensemble Mingus Amungus to such Brazilian bands as Vivendo de Pão and Boca do Rio to his own straight-ahead jazz ensembles. Recently, he's embraced the rapidly expanding jazz-electronica scene, providing live accompaniment for trip hop and DJ acts and forming the experimental band Subnautic, implementing a musical fusion that he believes is an important step in the evolution of jazz.

In many ways, Aginsky represents the full circle of the Bay Area's musical heritage. He grew up in a culture-conscious bohemian family, where folk and jazz were breathed in like oxygen. (Full disclosure: Aginsky's brother, Akim, is a contributing photographer for SF Weekly.) Jacob's father, Yasha Aginsky, was a documentary filmmaker who took his kids on cross-country trips to meet such folk and blues legends as Elizabeth Cotton and Dewey Balfa (both were featured in Yasha's 1980 film series, Homemade American Music). At the same time, the Aginskys' Bernal Heights home often served as a salon for visiting artists like jazz musician Don Cherry and string-band folklorist Mike Seeger.

Akim Aginsky


Friday, Jan. 17, at 7 p.m.

Admission is free


He also hosts a record release party for Subnautic's Bay Station on Thursday, Feb. 27, at 10 p.m. at Bruno's, 2389 Mission (at 20th Street), S.F. Tickets are $10, but everyone gets a free CD; call 648-7701 or go to

Bobby Ryder's, 312 Harriet (at Bryant), S.F.

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Jacob's first formal music training was with a family friend, pianist Randy Craig, best-known for his work with the Pickle Family Circus and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. One night at a dinner party, Craig noticed 6-year-old Jacob's remarkable ear for melodies, and offered to give him lessons. Unfortunately, Aginsky's tutoring was interrupted when his family moved to Paris in the late '70s. The young prodigy wasn't able to keep up with his music lessons in France ("I was too busy trying to learn the language!"), but he was further exposed to the classic jazz and Gypsy music his parents enjoyed.

When his family returned to the Bay Area in the early '80s, the preteen Aginsky found himself challenged by a neighborhood that had changed radically. "I came back and was totally French, with this very 'Pierre' accent: 'Weel you play weez me?' It was terrible! But by then Bernal Heights had become predominantly black, Latino, and Filipino, so I relearned English, speaking in kind of a hip hop context."

Aginsky, who describes himself as a "local boy, through and through," also expanded his musical vocabulary via the multicultural filters of the Bay Area. As a teen he played in a variety of punk and funk bands, while at the same time gravitating toward the urban go-go and hip hop sounds that were bubbling up at the time. He enrolled in the prestigious San Francisco Conservatory of Music, but attended for less than a year, when his free-ranging interests ran headlong into the school's rigorous classical regimen.

"I got booted -- or rather, they suggested that I leave -- for soloing over Bach's Prelude in C Major," recalls Aginsky, shrugging and smiling. "I was 12 years old and thought it sounded cool, but my teacher would slap my hand and say I wasn't supposed to do that. It's ironic, though. Since then I've read a bunch of books about Bach, and I think he would have loved it. He was a huge improviser! All of the toccatas were just him improvising and someone else madly scribbling the music down."

Aginsky says that he regrets never learning how to sight-read music, but that he still draws on the rich elegance of classical and Baroque composers he studied as a child. To him, classical and jazz are twin sides of the same coin -- music in its purest form. "There's two ways you can approach it: the classical, correct, analytical way, and then the liberal, emotional, feeling way. They're both valid, but I've always been more interested in communication than in what is technically right."

Currently, it's hard for young composers like Aginsky to break into the big time, what with small clubs closing, larger venues gearing toward national acts, radio stations narrowing their formats, and major labels sticking with established artists. For this generation of jazz musicians, concert halls are being replaced by warehouse raves and private parties, as electronica and turntablist sessions become the place where jazz exploration lives on. Aginsky says this new sound also fits into his allegiance with the historically mellow Bay Area vibe.

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