By Ian S. Port
By Cory Sklar
By Godofredo Vasquez
By Gil Riego Jr.
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Christopher Victorio
By Ian S. Port
Pianist Mark Levine has been one of San Francisco's leading sources of Latin and straight-ahead jazz fire for years. His most visible role currently is as leader of the group Latin Tinge, featuring percussionist Michael Spiro, bassist Peter Barshay, and drummer Paul van Wageningen. The ensemble's third CD, Isla, was nominated for a 2003 Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Recording. Levine plays with a bright and assured touch, spare enough to let in plenty of light around breezier numbers, yet bristling with a lightning energy when the occasion demands. His across-the-board talents and experience have made him a constantly in-demand sideman as well as a respected bandleader.
Levine moved to San Francisco back in 1966 after jazz studies in New York and Boston. Here he hit the young and learning jazzman's jackpot, landing a spot in the quartet of trumpet star Woody Shaw, a post he held for a full year. Levine then went on to work with a who's who of hard-bop heavyweights, musicians like Dave Liebman, Blue Mitchell, and Joe Henderson. During these years, Levine was also hearing the call of the Latin beat, and began working with Latin standouts like Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Pete Escovedo, and Cal Tjader. He traveled to Cuba in 1997 to study at the Centro Nacional de Escuela de Arte in Havana and upon returning formed the band Que Calor with saxophonist Ron Stallings. He next assembled Latin Tinge, releasing the group's first CD, Hey, It's Me, in 2000.
Levine keeps up a hectic local performance schedule, playing with his own groups and with local scene jazzmasters like Mel Martin and Akira Tana. Just last month, Levine and Latin Tinge took the stage at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Concussive orchestral power, burning arrangements, cutting-edge electronics, retro hip hop, scalding vocals, and monster hot-jazz soloing all come together in the Realistic Orchestra, the potent big-band offering of the omnipresent San Francisco musical conglomerate the Jazz Mafia. In 2002, the Realistic Orchestra took shape from a supernova expansion of the hip hop/jazz quintet Realistic, featuring trombonist Adam Theus, saxophonist Joe Cohen, vibraphonist and electronics whiz Michael Emenau, drummer Eric Garland, and DJ Aspect. Gathering many of the hottest jazz players in the city, the Realistic Orchestra ignited in a flash.
Since early 2003, Realistic and its Jazz Mafia colleagues have been appearing each Tuesday at Bruno's, with monthly offerings as the full-scale Orchestra. That's a lot of sweat and explosion for that small room, but RO makes it work. While the good-time atmosphere and frantic pace may sometimes send the band careening around corners and down steep grades at what seems like a "we're out of control and the brakes don't work" gallop, what makes the group exceptional is the fact that the chaos is (mostly) illusory. The compositions and arrangements are sharp and fresh and create an effective framework for the high-spirited soloing as well as for the innovative electronic counterpoints, with stylistic inspirations seemingly running the gamut from Fred McGriff to Buddy Rich to Frank Zappa to the Roots.
It's a testimony to the Realistic Orchestra's vision that it's been able to attract and maintain a roster featuring members of some of the city's best bands, including saxophonist Alex Budman (Contemporary Jazz Orchestra), trombonist Marty Wehner (Mingus Amungus), and saxophonist Kenny Brooks (Alphabet Soup and Ratdog).
The fun of the Realistic Orchestra is well represented by the group's 2004 CD, Recorded Live at Bruno's in San Francisco.
Citizens Here and Abroad
Music history is full of supergroups that formed from other bands. The Firm, Asia, Damn Yankees -- the list of glorious acts goes on and on. Now add another ensemble to that roster: Citizens Here and Abroad. This local quartet combines two members of the now-defunct noise-pop group Secadora with the rhythm section from the still-functioning act Dealership to make fuzzy, moody pop perfection. How did such a successful marriage come about? From the near dissolution of another band, of course. Back in fall 2002, Dealership guitarist Jane Pinckard took off for Japan, leaving her bandmates -- bassist Chris Groves and drummer Chris Wetherell -- scratching their heads. Luckily, the scratching unearthed more than just dandruff. Guitarist Dan Lowrie and singer/guitarist Adrienne Robillard, whose then-disintegrating group happened to share practice space with Dealership, offered a salve for the duo's wounds (and scalps). Taking their name from a '50s Girl Scout handbook that belonged to Robillard's Aunt Shirley, the musicians began collaborating on songs. The result was pretty similar to their individual bands' sounds, only better -- like how in good relationships, the partners make up for each other's faults. Citizens' tunes -- eventually released in early 2004 on the Omnibus LP Ghosts of Tables and Chairs-- recall the best of '90s shoegazing indie-pop, with fuzzed-out rhythm guitar and echo-y guitar leads, stuttering drum fills, and the occasional xylophone accent. (OK, so My Bloody Valentine never used a xylophone, but that's a shame, no?) At the same time, Robillard's hushed, heartfelt vocals intertwine nicely with Groves' counterpoint harmonies, lending a searching, mournful vibe to the tunes. And now that Pinckard has returned and Dealership has started back up, Groves and Wetherell have two kick-ass bands to unleash on the Bay Area. Super!
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