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Jazz

Babatunde Lea

Forget about the fact that percussionist Babatunde Lea's former collaborators -- neon names like Van Morrison, McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson, and Bobby Hutcherson -- would make a discerning record collector shudder. All you need to know about this artist can be found on his recent record, March of the Jazz Gorillas. With it, Lea leads his band through shimmering arrangements of both classics and would-be standards, enchanting each with a tasteful, catholic knowledge of percussive textures and harmonic voicings from every corner of the globe. Born in Danville, Va., and raised in Jersey, Lea started drumming in street marching outfits as a sixth-grader, and before he got a high school diploma he was getting studio work as a conga player. The siren of New York City's world-infused post-bop scene called, and soon Lea was stepping out with Leon Thomas, Oscar Brown Jr., Lonnie Liston Smith, Kenny Kirkland, John Purcell, Buddy Williams, and Eddie "Gua Gua" Rivera. In 1977, Lea headed west, landing in the Bay Area, where he quickly became a versatile figurehead and first-call drummer of the multiculti jazz scene. In a creed every bit as moving as his playing, he says simply, "It is my express wish that my music will empower people to look within and to wake up to new possibilities; to become agents of positive change for themselves, for their families, and for the world at large."

Kim Nalley

Jazz singer Kim Nalley's rags-to-riches story couldn't have been better scripted if Steven Spielberg had written it. Raised in a housing project in New Haven, Conn., by her Black Panther dad and her Italian-Native American mom, Nalley watched Ginger Rogers movies and dreamt of a more glamorous life. She eventually attended a performing arts school on scholarship and then studied opera at Holy Cross University, before dropping out to play music on her own. For the next couple of years, she followed an unusual muse -- the Grateful Dead -- until the patchouli trail led her to the Bay Area, where she fell under the tutelage of BJ Papa, a seasoned vet on the local jazz scene. After turning heads with her fluid vocal style at small clubs through the '90s, she started performing with the Johnny Nocturne Band, adding blues standards to her growing repertoire, and touring Europe, where she met her future husband in 2001. Then, upon hearing that the owner of famed North Beach nightclub Pearl's was retiring, she flew home with her husband to take over the lease. Now, the sultry vocalist -- who's often compared to Dinah Washington and Nina Simone -- sings jazz, blues, and pop standards at her very own bar, just like in one of those old Ginger Rogers movies.

Rova Saxophone Quartet

The roots of the Rova Saxophone Quartet go back to Berkeley in the late '70s, when the Mills College free-music scene was literally screeching in the periphery of the national consciousness. In its earliest incarnation, Rova was made up of Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, Andrew Voigt, and Bruce Ackley -- four horn players determined to carve out a niche in the hazy (and frankly noisy) world of new music. Often credited with reinventing the saxophone quartet, the group features soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone sax, occasionally adding in the happy little sound of the "sopranino," the piccolo sax, and the big, bad, twisted plumbing of the bass saxophone. Citing post-bop saxophone giants like Coltrane and Anthony Braxton and avant-garde greats like musique concrète icon Edgard Varese and everyone's favorite thinkin' feller, John Cage, Rova quickly established itself as the hippest thing to hit the free-music scene since pickled herring. In the years since the group's inception, its members have developed a synergistic style of structured improvisation marked by the dynamic interplay of the saxophone's lesser-explored tonal regions (many pieces feature sounds more akin to a mechanical turkey than anything coming out of Lisa Simpson's horn). Over the course of creating the roughly 40 releases they've had a hand in, they've traveled to nearly every corner of the world and have played with every heavy in the field of new music (you want a list? we'll give you a list! Terry Riley, Robin Holcomb, Butch Morris, Fred Frith, John Zorn, Kronos Quartet, and Alvin Curran, to name a few). These days, Rova is still at the bleeding edge of its genre, an ensemble with a singular, powerful voice.

Soul/R&B

Harold Ray Live in Concert

Harold Ray Live in Concert is the ultimate party band, able to turn any room, no matter the size, into a sweating, heaving groove marathon. The motley sextet -- singer/ provocateur Jason Morgan, saxophonist Charlie Karr, organist Justin Magaña, guitarist Dave Coffman, drummer Jack Matthew, and bassist Dennis Cabuco -- plays with all the combustible energy of James Brown fronting the Sonics, pure soul raging in a very grungy garage. For the most part, Harold Ray (which is a combination of Morgan's middle name and that of his father) plays old R&B covers, but the tunes are so obscure -- and so rip-roaringly ragged -- that they don't sound anything like retro nostalgia. Who, for instance, has ever heard of Wayne Cochran's "Goin' Back to Miami," save for a rabid Miami Dolphins fan? Or lucked onto the Combo Kings' "Mish Mash Soul" or the instructive "Ain't Nothin' But a House Party" by the Showstoppers? We're not talking about a band playing "Proud Mary" for the bazillionth time. Not surprisingly, Harold Ray was begun for the simpler purpose of performing live -- even the group's one eponymous CD, released in September 2003 by Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label, was recorded live in front of a select audience at the Werepad. During shows, Morgan throttles his mike and shreds his vocal cords, Karr bleats and blares with the power of a full horn section, Magaña does handstands on his organ, and the other players threaten to beat their parts into a bloody pulp. Harold Ray's shows are so cathartic, so calamitous, so crazy, the band has been chosen to play with such eccentric icons as Blowfly, the Monks, and Harvey Sid Fischer. It's only a matter of time before James Brown himself gets wind of the group and comes a-callin'.

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