The moving kinship of Alma Matters
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Spend some time discovering jazz and allied styles of music in East Bay and it will quickly become apparent that the scene is like one big family. But even in this tight-knit context, Alma Matters stands out as a project defined by a tangled web of overlapping relationships resulting from birth, marriage, and grade school seating plans.
“That’s why I called it Alma Matters,” said Jeff Weinmann, a flautist, drummer and singer from Berkeley, who adopted the two-way nickname as a reference both to his scholastic origins and to his fundamental sounds imbued with it. soul (alma means soul in Spanish). “I remember hearing Peter Apfelbaum play ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’ in grade school, and it made me want to be a musician.”
Though long based in Brooklyn, Apfelbaum, a multi-instrumentalist composer and arranger, has maintained close ties to the Bay Area scene, especially with other alumni of the groundbreaking Berkeley Unified School District jazz program established. by Dr Herb Wong in the late 1960s. Weinmann started Alma Matters a decade ago with Apfelbaum as a studio collaboration recorded by Santana sound engineer and trombonist Jeff Cressman, who performed all met at Longfellow Elementary School in Berkeley. Alma Matters has grown steadily over the years, and the group performing at Yoshi’s on Tuesday encompasses a surprising array of African diaspora musical idioms performed by a group of world-class players from multiple musical clans. leading.
BUSD ties connect Apfelbaum, Weinmann and Cressman with drummer Josh Jones, a master of Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and jazz trumpeter Erik Jekabson, whose 17-piece Electric Squeezebox Orchestra plays the music of double saxophonist / composer Remy Le Beef’s Assembly from Shadows Saturday at the Sound Room. Blood and marriage connect singer and Brazilian music specialist Alma Matters Sandy Cressman and her daughter (with Jeff), trombonist and singer Natalie Cressman, whose duet with Brazilian guitarist / singer Ian Faquini, a special guest of Yoshi, created a brilliant post-bossa nova path.
“That’s the beauty, we have these very deep roots,” said Jeff Cressman, who noted that many Alma Matters musicians have also linked up at Jazz Camp West at La Honda, the intensive summer program produced. by Living Jazz, a nonprofit arts organization that also offers free music education in Oakland public schools and produces Martin Luther King Jr. Day’s annual concert, “In the Name of Love.”
“I remember sitting next to Jeff in 6th grade,” Cressman continued. “Peter had moved to Willard, but I met him at Longfellow in the Giant Hamburger group. We organized parties, played at the openings of recycling centers and play structures. We used to play music together when we were kids. It’s a trip to have someone in your life for this long.
Alma Matters’ rhythm section features Oakland brothers Steve and Colin Hogan, on bass and keyboards respectively, and Berkeley guitarist John Schott, a creative music mainstay whose sonic palette gracefully blends country blues, bebop and free jazz. Other special guests include Terrance Kelly, director of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, and Rashidi Omari, principal choreographer and co-director of the Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company of Oakland (a portion of the concert ticket revenue is earmarked for Destiny Arts Center).
In many ways, Alma Matters builds on the insistent omnivorous concept behind Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphics Ensemble, a sprawling global jazz combo he created at Berkeley High that draws inspiration from African folk forms from the ‘West, funk, Afro-Caribbean percussions and avant-garde jazz. He’s put it back several times over the years with the Bay Area and New York iterations, though both featured a large Berkeley High cohort. This was the group in which Natalie Cressman played some of her first concerts, long before going on tour with Trey Anastasio of Phish.
The hieroglyphic set has been mostly dormant in recent years, and Apfelbaum has hit the bay area stages in groups of brilliant Cuban musicians like drummer Dafnis Prieto and pianist Omar Sosa, or with his little one Sparkler combo, a brilliant brass combo that also features Cressman. Alma Matters has become another forum for a stylistically expansive collaboration.
“Alma Matters is a great example of how the BUSD jazz program spawned all of these players who went into their own world,” said Apfelbaum. “I see a similarity with hieroglyphics in the instrumentation and the rhythmic foundations. That’s Jeff’s vision and one thing I love is that the emphasis is on the songs. It could be reggae, funk, gospel or African American spirituals, I see songs as people’s music. And I have the freedom to orchestrate the tunes, which take their own forms.
Given the busy schedule of Apfelbaum and everyone else before the pandemic, the building up of the Alma Matters team usually took place around the year-end vacation, which means Weinmann has spent six years creating the project’s eponymous album in 2017. In recent years, he has focused on commissioning and creating videos for new Alma Matters tracks, including several premieres at Yoshi’s.
Speaking to Weinmann, it’s easy to see how Alma Matters continues to develop. Each new piece becomes the vehicle for a larger vision including dance, poetry and video. A highlight of the Alma Matters album was Terrence Kelly’s vocals on Apfelbaum’s percussion-driven arrangement of the spiritual standard “Wade In the Water”. Chez Yoshi, Kelly and Rashidi Omari will be presented in the sequel, “Follow The Drinking Gourd”, the second part of an emancipatory triptych on access to freedom.
A song about using the stars for nighttime navigation (the gourd is the Big Dipper) during the Underground Railroad, the current video will feature Omari and members of the Destiny Arts Youth Ensemble. “I want the kids to write about what their North Star is now,” Weinmann said.
Whatever the arrangement of the words, Alma Matters embodies a message as deep as its spiritually charged sound. Making music can bind people together, nurture a creative communion that evolves over decades.