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Erik Jekabson Quartet & John Santos go down a Hillside Club rabbit hole

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“The Erik Jekabson Quartet & John Santos | Live at the Hillside Club” album [March 15, 2014]

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We had no plan of releasing the recording as a CD, but after listening to it many times, I felt that it captured the live spirit and spontaneity of an inspired performance.

One fateful night, some very talented Bay Area musicians went onstage for a gig at the Hillside Club in Berkeley, CA, October 11, 2011. What transpired there turned into one helluva live album for trumpeter and composer Erik Jekabson and guest percussionist, the five-time, Grammy-nominated John Santos.

“We didn't intend to record a CD, but Bruce Koball, the artistic director of the Hillside, records every concert and after listening to it over the course of a year, I decided that it was a great documentation of a brand new band and the energy that the band has the first time playing together,” Jekabson explained. “[I’d] put this band together to add some new sounds to a quartet palette, John Santos’ percussion being those new sounds. We got a musical grant from the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music that helped everyone get paid, and now the CD’s out.”

The March 15th release, “The Erik Jekabson Quartet & John Santos | Live at the Hillside Club,” captures the energy of that new band (Jekabson on trumpet and flugelhorn, his quartet — pianist Grant Levin, bassist John Wiitala, and drummer Smith Dobson, with guest percussionist Santos) stretching its creative and collaborative bandwidth without any discernible mishaps. Capturing that energy live — and on record — is a natural progression of any band, and the wish of every music fan. But for the exacting, perfectionist jazz musician, it can present a challenge.

Namely, getting over the urge to fine-tune every track until it’s studio-ready, which kind of offsets the purpose of a live album. Jekabson admitted to the reservations prior to giving Koball’s Hillside mix a listen. “Bruce records everything at the Hillside, and he does it really well,” Jekabson told Andrew Gilbert of Berkeleyside in a March 13, 2014 interview. “After he sent me the music I picked through the rough mixes and gave them out as Christmas presents. The more I listened to it, the more I realized how good the band sounded. Bruce was incredibly generous and spent a lot of time with me getting the right mix. I definitely wasn’t intending to make a record, which is good, because it’s easy to get uptight when you know you’re recording.”

Even though the record is live, the band came prepared with Jekabson’s charts and recordings of some tracks. They even managed to sneak in a pre-show rehearsal at the Hillside Club. The quality of those tracks are attributed to the vast experience of the guest star, John Santos — a major name in the San Francisco music scene — and of Jekabson’s quartet. Jekabson’s played with drummer Dobson and bassist Wiitala for quite awhile now. They backed him on his 2009 album “Crescent Boulevard” and then again for his acclaimed 2011 museum-inspired, “Anti-Mass.” Pianist Levin takes over for guitarist Mike Abraham. As for Santos, Jekabson knew he had found a kindred spirit and a performing goldmine in this veteran when their paths crossed at JazzCamp West a few years back, when both were faculty members.

Santos tenured for two years as the resident artistic director at SFJAZZ Center and has recorded with numerous killer, Latin-jazz artists. Last year, Santos’ work got the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra treatment by director Arturo O’Farrill in a two-night, New York City Symphony Space show.

Much to Jekabson’s surprise, Santos made room in his busy schedule to do some gigs and some new music with the band. He was definitely up for the Hillside Club, with all the preparation that involved, which showed in the absolute artistry and technical proficiency of his play throughout the live album.

“John is the nicest guy, and really conscientious about learning the music,” Jekabson said. “You can tell it’s the bandleader in him. There are some tunes he’s really playing the congas more, more of a salsa thing. But a lot of the time he’s totally free to do whatever he wants. He can play so many different styles. His ears are so huge, he finds the spot to add whatever’s necessary. [Andrew Gilbert, Berkeleyside, March 13, 2014 interview]”

Jekabson wrote and arranged all of the eight tracks on the album. Usually, an average album contains at least 10 to 15 tracks. But with Jekabson, less is more. His densely layered, elaborately thoughtful variations, and the fact that this is a live, straight-ahead jazz recording — who knows where they’ll go next — the eight tracks could fill two albums. “Crescent Boulevard” alone is over 11 minutes long, and worth every nano-second.

The music flows through Latin-jazz (“Pent-up House”), funk, classical, New Orleans, and straight ahead (“Fallen Angel”) focusing obsessively on the out-stretches of the percussive (naturally, look who’s there!) path.

Every Jekabson tune is a trip down a seemingly endless rabbit hole, pushing deeper into the trenches with the thick, mossy forestry of promise, discovery, and an insatiable appetite for the darker heartbeat of a song’s inner workings. This is a Steampunk composer who enjoys exploring the guts of the music outward.

From the moment the Erik Jekabson Quartet & John Santos lock in on the first track of the live performance — “Occupy” — it’s clear they’re here to explore every crevice inside out. The music is neither extravagant, nor self-indulgent. Every note’s in place, no time or interest in showing off. Each member of the band’s ready to crack the melodic/harmonic code, or die trying.

Somehow, their live music sounds studio-ready yet dangerously organic, as if one of them will take a turn at any moment, flying off into a wonderland. Nobody cares, because each one of them — especially Santos — does at some point, always rounding home in a perfectly executed time slot.

“Occupy” gets dark and deep into the heartbeat before moving fast through five constantly repositioning, yet compatible instrumental treatments. Jekabson’s horns lay the track’s melody nearly threadbare, forming the silky firmament from which to launch a thousand solos. He weaves his warm-to-sharp figures through the layers of Latin percussion, straight-ahead bass and drum backbone, and an almost pop-fusion amalgamation brewing beneath pianist Levin’s fingers. Then, Levin breaks character with pretty melody to crank at the harmonic outskirts, breaking chords at the edges, creating two-tone magnetic steel on ivory tracks in a solo that goes everywhere at once. That’s gotta be Santos and Dobson further breaking up the beats in a frenetic Afro-Cuban striation that somehow tops off the heady brew.

There’s always so much going on in a Jekabson production, it’s hard to focus. But the whirligig is never superfluous. “Crescent Boulevard,” the last and second longest song on the album, sets a pensive, sexy mood as the horn cuts through the air in slices then spirals. Before too long, the other musicians fall in line, picking up on the threatening tantrum of a slow burn as wild, primitive sounds begin to circle. As the audience’s applause falls like rain in Paris, that slow burn leaves traces of Dexter Gordon’s Round Midnight and even a little Monk.

John Santos goes into a controlled percussive, conga frenzy on “Rhythm-a-ning,” setting the bar high. Up against Jekabson’s equally controlled but sly, architectural-brass sensibility, the contrast is jarring but effective. The effect is that of a vaudevillian circus running through a Cuban nightclub. When the two go together, with pianist Levin granting several accentuating passes, it’s a Latin-straight-ahead mambo. The musical conversation lends itself to whatever space and time are required to get a solo out of Santos’ system — the sonic equivalent of bumper cars headed in the same direction.

Same with “Pent-up House,” inspiring pianist Levin to conjure up the classical and the conga line in one fell swoop, as the percussion section carries the tune along — busting loose in a salsa every so often. Both piano and drums lockstep down a crazy jungle pathway, marked by jagged edges and dance moves.

Grant Levin drops flowers all over his piano in the classically touched straight-ahead groove of “A New Beginning,” as bassist Wiitala and trumpeter Jekabson do their own evasive lockstep — the fragrant build of melody a hair’s breath within their grasp.

“Fallen Angel” is as straightforwardly straight ahead as it gets. The horn, piano, percussion, and bass all serve to propel a very specific, very intimate feeling of introductory courtship in the air. Instead of a swirling, circular mass at play, the band breaks the moments down to an even, confessional tempo, distilling mood with just a selection of well-played notes in quiet conversation, taking turns, listening and rotating riffs off what’s already been said, and coming together calmly.

“Actual Tune,” coming in at a whopping 11 minutes and 23 seconds is a tribute to what Jekabson can do on the trumpet, at one point, halfway through, making it creak and cry for mercy in an absolute slamming jazz-blues scorcher. This may be the longest tune on the record, but it’s jam-packed with soluble solo numbers that entrances from one stream of subconscious to another.

Santos stretches time and imagination in the ultimate stream of consciousness number, “Like Kenny.” His conga intro is out of this world, a fantastical directive of a solo flourishing and grounding the song. The others dive right in, jumping on his embarrassment of riches at the starting gate. They put meaty flesh to the tribal beats in a roving parade, carving out strategic elaboration — bursting at the seams, yet wholly contained — for an interval, slip and peek buffet. In true jazz improvisational form, each musician contributes a voice in no particular pecking order, going deeper into that rabbit hole to the center of an unseen but felt energetic propulsion.

If this is live, imagine a studio recording. Wow.

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