Erik Jekabson has three very distinct gigs set for next weekend.
On October 18, the veteran Bay Area trumpeter takes center stage at Piedmont Piano Co. to lead his String-tet through a performance featuring Jekabson’s own arrangements of Duke Ellington tunes. The group features an eclectic mix of players including Randy Porter (piano), Anthony Blea (violin), Charith Prewardhana (viola), Michael Zilber (saxophone), John Wiitala (bass) and Dillon Vado (drums, vibes). Jazzschool’s Advanced High School Jazz Workshop II serves as opening act.
Jekabson and Porter will spend the rest of the weekend backing two of the region’s top jazz vocalists. October 19 will find them on stage with Kelly Graye at San Francisco’s Emerald Tablet; October 20 will be spent with Jackie Ryan at the Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley. Here’s what Jekabson had to say about rearranging Ellington and performing with Porter and the vocalists.
Question: Let's start with the String-tet. In forming this group, what type of sound were you looking for that could only be achieved with this combination of instruments?
Jekabson: When I formed the String-tet, I wanted a group that could play in a lot of different styles – straight-ahead jazz, classical, avant-garde jazz, funk, Latin, etc. The strings enable it to go in the more classical direction and are a great compliment to the trumpet and the saxophone in that they never have to breathe, which enables them to play long passages where they add another layer to the rhythm section. I also like having drums double on vibraphone, as we can play more chamber-jazz type stuff with that sound. Adding piano, especially with Randy Porter playing, is inspiring, because he can float over all of these different textures.
Question: Ellington, of course, is recognized as a giant both in composing and arranging. What challenges did this present in creating original arrangements?
Jekabson: The first jazz recordings I really got into were Duke Ellington and Count Basie. I listened to Duke's "The Great Paris Concert" over and over when I was younger. The personalities of the musicians came across so strongly and I was always surprised by all the different timbres in the music. That's because one of Duke's strengths was his ability to write for the specific people in his band. I'm trying to do that with the String-tet, which has really strong personalities in the band, including Michael Zilber on tenor and soprano sax. Also, having the two string instruments and the vibraphone will make it easier for the String-tet to get a different sound on these arrangements. I'm re-orchestrating some of the tunes for the String-tet because I think that will be really cool to hear and some I'm doing with completely different feels and arrangements.
Question: How did Randy Porter get involved in this project?
Jekabson: I get a chance to play with Randy at Jazzcamp West and I'm always blown away by his playing. To me, he's very musical and his ideas are always fresh sounding but he also sounds like he's studied and knows the jazz piano language. I think this makes him a great person to interpret Duke Ellington's music. I'm really going to try to make him shine in this setting, playing that incredible Fazioli piano at Piedmont Piano.
Question: How does your role change when performing with vocalists vs. fellow instrumentalists? Suffice it to say, the audience is there primarily to hear the singers.
Jekabson: I like playing with singers – it's challenging to play the role of an accompanist on the trumpet. It sometimes takes a lot of patience to not play anything or to play much less, so that the few things you do play really make a statement. And then your solos are usually shorter and more to the point and are a contrast to the vocals, which is nice. I have no problem playing a supporting role on the bandstand, especially when it's in the company of singers like Kellye Gray or Jackie Ryan.
Want to keep up with the best in Bay Area jazz and blues?
Subscribe to us: Have our jazz Examiner columns sent to your inbox. Click the SUBSCRIBE button on this page. It's free. (And we won't spam you or give out your information.) Bookmark us: http://www.examiner.com/jazz-music-in-oakland/brian-mccoy