.Winter Music Collection

Spontaneity is Key


Calling Cecile McLorin Salvant a jazz singer is kind of like calling Donald Trump a realtor. It’s a woefully incomplete description. Salvant is a jazz singer, but much more than that.  As a vocalist, composer, bandleader, visual artist and filmmaker, the term “multidimensional artist” has been used more than once to describe her and really fits.

Salvant, who returns to Kuumbwa Jazz Center Monday night, has been drawing superlatives and awards from musicians, singers and critics since 2010, when she released her first album, Cécile & the Jean-François Bonnel Paris Quintet. Then, at the age of 21, she went on to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition for vocalists.

She received three consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Jazz Vocal Album for “The Window,” “Dreams and Daggers” and “For One To Love,” and was nominated for the award in 2014 for her album “WomanChild.”

In 2019, opera icon Jessye Norman chose Salvant for the Twelfth Glenn Gould Prize, an award not normally awarded to jazz singers. Norman described McLorin Salvant as a “unique voice supported by an intelligence and full-fledged musicality which lights up every note she sings.”

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Brian O’Neill of the  Glenn Gould Foundation Podcast extolled her “musical adventurousness, willingness to voyage across centuries and make music of different times, cultures and mindscapes uniquely her own.”

Salvant has toured with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, whose  music director Wynton Marsalis, said, “You get a singer like this once in a generation or two.”

Salvant grew up in Miami, Fla., the daughter of a French mother and Haitian father, Salvant heard all kinds of music growing up. “Music was always on in the house, great singers and music from all over the world.”

She started classical piano studies at five, began studying voice at the age of eight and didn’t crossover into jazz until 2007, while studying at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory in 2007, Salvant says that her main jazz influence is Sarah Vaughan.

Salvant received a bachelor’s in French law from the Université Pierre-Mendes France in Grenoble while also studying baroque music and jazz at the Darius Milhaud Music Conservatory in Aix-en-Provence, France.

Her wide-ranging curiosity and quest for artistic fodder makes her a more worldly version of a “crate-digger,” mining  jazz, blues, vaudeville, blues, musical theater, jazz, baroque and folkloric music to create new art.

One project in the works is a feature-length, animated film based on her album “Ogresse,” a musical fairy tale in the form of a genre-blending cantata–using her own drawings–which Salvant will direct. Her idea for “Ogresse” was sparked by a painting by Haitian artist Gerard Fortune depicting an Erzulie, or Vodou deity. Salvant brought it to life with a 13-piece chamber orchestra. 

Salvant talked about her penchant for challenging herself, fellow musicians and audiences.

“As an audience member, I love to be stimulated and challenged. I don’t want something regurgitated and spoon fed to me. But I also don’t think music or art needs to be the spinach you feel you have to eat because it’s ‘good for you.’ I am for pleasure and laughter. Truthfully, though I am much more process-driven than impact-driven. I can only say for certain that I would like to move people and connect with their emotions.”
Has her multicultural, multilingual background been an asset?

“I think different languages give you different sounds to work with. Writing is the product of thinking, but sometimes thinking is the product of writing. I feel like sometimes I think slightly differently in different languages.”

Being placed in a stylistic category can be anathema for a free-range creator like Salvant.

“I think there is a certain creativity required in the act of categorization. It’s a natural process, something we do all the time for everything in our lives. It can be fun. But I think it’s only fun when you’re doing the categorizing, not when you’re being categorized. As a musician, it can be paralyzing to be placed in a genre. You start to believe in the genre everyone has said you’re in. It exists as an entity separate from other genres, there is no bleed-through. Then it even becomes a responsibility to keep it “alive”, or “authentic.” You start making music in harmony with that category, or sometimes in conflict with it. Either way, you must contend with it, there’s no escaping being labeled by others.

Salvant has performed enough times at Kuumbwa to become an audience favorite, according to creative director Bennett Jackson. This upcoming visit will be her first visit to Santa Cruz since 2019, B.C. (Before Covid)

Her band at Kuumbwa will include her most frequent creative partner, pianist Sullivan Fortner.  “My favorite thing is how open he is, spontaneous, and willing to try anything,” she says. Salvant will be singing with the band’s bassist, Yasushi Nakamura. “I love his sound, his feel, and his freedom as a musician. He has a freakish memory as well.”

Up and coming drummer Savannah Harris is the other member. She has worked with a wide range of today’s top indie and experimental artists, and jazz people.  “Her playing is infectious, really creative, and she has incredible time and versatility,” Salvant says.

Referring to her band, Salvant says, “What I love about these three musicians is how dedicated they are to the music they make, and how much they want to grow even though they are masters at their craft.”

Spontaneity and in the moment creation could be considered the essence of jazz, and it’s ultra-important to McLorin Salvant.

“I follow my intuition,” she says. “I don’t like for any song or arrangement to be written in stone. Everything we do needs to be flexible, needs to allow for change. Sometimes we play the structure of the song upside down, sometimes we skip sections, sometimes we play it at half speed, in a different key, sometimes I add a poem at the end of a song, that I improvise a melody to on the spot.
Last March, Nonesuch Records released her latest recording, “Mélusine,” an album mostly sung in French, along with Occitan, English and Haitian Kreyòl. What music will she be doing at Kuumbwa?

“I don’t know this yet, but I want to add some new songs to the mix. I often pick songs in the moment but I’d like to start sticking to set lists! The set lists change every night, especially since I’m often coming up with what we’re doing in the moment! But that might change this year, I think.”

7 and 9 pm, Jan. 22, Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St, Santa Cruz $31.50–$57.75 kuumbwajazz.org

HOLDING COMPOSURE This season, Daphnis & Chloé offer an exciting sound that weaves between cultures. Photo: Santa Cruz Symphony

Winter Romance


Live music to enthrall new and experienced concert-goers alike will be performed by the Santa Cruz Symphony Jan. 20 and 21 under the direction of Daniel Stewart joined by guest soloist Hwayoung Shon.

Daphnis & Chloé, a musical landscape by Maurice Ravel gives its name to this winter concert, that begins with the sumptuous Adagio from Symphony 10 by Gustav Mahler. Following the Mahler will be the US premiere of Jean Ahn‘s Jajang, Jajang for Gayageum and Orchestra.

The work has been created to highlight the haunting zither-like sound of the traditional Korean gayageum. Sensitively working at the edge of contemporary orchestral music, yet maintaining the distinctive authenticity of the gayageum, award-winning composer Ahn brings a rare entwining of cultures to audiences in this new work.

Soloist Hwayoung Shon, a master of the Korean stringed instrument, performs worldwide, enchanting audiences with her virtuoso performances of an exciting sound that many in the West are just getting to know. Shon, 48, made her performance debut at the age of 10 and has been working extensively ever since with jazz practitioners, world musicians, K-pop stars and classical orchestras. The blend of traditional Korean music with contemporary styles gives her performance at this concert added excitement.

Gustav Mahler was one of the giants of early 20th century Expressionist music. Big, bold, sweeping and experimental, his work sits at the very center of the repertoire for worldwide orchestral performances.

 In addition to creating enthralling songs for solo voice, he is renowned for his ten symphonies, each of which explores the depth of huge emotions, including the anguish of heartbreak, utilizing the full sonic reaches of the orchestra. Famed for the sheer intensity of color and rhythm, Mahler’s 10th Symphony was his final statement on love, betrayal and the oceanic sweep of human desires. There’s not a boring moment in this Adagio, large-scale orchestral music intended to move and inspire each listener. Mahler’s long, slow build-up of sound leads to a spectacular climax.

And about the Ravel, Daphnis & Chloé is an early 20th century Impressionist suite originally created for the Russian superstar dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Highly romantic, the music tells the story of two children, found and raised by shepherds, who fall in love.

Taken from a Greek myth written in the 3rd century, Ravel’s music paints an orchestral picture of the two young lovers—Daphnis the goatherd and Chloé the shepherdess—their adventures and the music that the god Pan taught Daphnis to play.

Created for ballet, a musical story intended to be danced, Daphnis & Chloé is a highly popular part of the orchestral repertoire. The music seems to guide us through the love story, the adventures, utilizing four recognizable leitmotifs—musical themes—that helped underscore the dance choreography when the piece was played for ballet dancers.

With lush harmonies, and passionate instrumentation this piece is considered Ravel’s masterpiece for orchestra. Many listeners will already be familiar with Ravel through his entrancing Boléro, a 1928 piece for large orchestra that is not only his most famous work, but his final completed musical composition. As with the Boléro, Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloé Suite no. 2 places us in the midst of the story as it unfolds. Ravel’s highly accessible music is emotionally compelling, and completely engaging.

The upcoming Santa Cruz Symphony concert—Daphnis & Chloé—offers innovative programming with broad appeal: Mahler’s Adagio, a US premiere concerto for Gayageum and orchestra, and finally Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloé, Suite no.2.

7:30pm Jan 20, Santa Cruz Civic, 307 Church St., $40-$110

2pm Jan. 21, Mello Center for the Performing Arts, 250 Beach St., Watsonville, $40-$110.santacruzsymphony.org

The Third Mind | Photo: Leslie Campbell Photography

Uncertainty Principle


From one perspective, the sounds made by The Third Mind, a 21st century collective of artists each acclaimed in his and her own right–has little to do with the music each of its members has made before. The group features Dave Alvin, co-founder of powerhouse proto-roots rockers The Blasters, along with bassist Victor Krummenacher, bassist with indie rock heroes Camper Van Beethoven.

Other members of the group include folk-rocking singer-songwriter Jesse Sykes, Michael Jerome (in-demand drummer for Richard Thompson, John Cale and many others) and multi-instrumentalist David Immerglück of Counting Crows and Camper Van Beethoven. (For the tour, Ratdog guitarist Mark Karan will take the place of Immerglück.)

And while it’s true that The Third Mind’s improvisational approach places it well outside the scope of nearly all of those groups, Alvin and Krummenacher don’t view their latest collaborative project as an outlier. “In my other bands,” Alvin explains, “there are certain songs of mine where we don’t know how they’ll end. That keeps everybody on their toes, and they don’t get like, ‘”Oh, I’m so tired of this.’”

“And that’s why I come and see you play a lot,” Krummenacher tells him. Because although Krummenacher’s journeys have taken him to wildly different musical places, he says that The Third Mind represents the realization of a long-held desire. “I think there’s something special,” he suggests, “about having a song as a general guidebook, and then working with people who are crazy enough–and competent enough–to use that script and then go off.”

That kind of unpredictability and reliance upon spontaneity and communication–writ large–is at the core of The Third Mind aesthetic. Using classic folk-rock songs of the ‘60s as raw material, The Third Mind embarks upon musical excursions that soar well beyond the parameters of the songs in their original form.

The group tackles songs both beloved and obscure. The Third Mind’s 2020 self-titled debut featured Fred Neil’s “The Dolphins,” and the band’s latest (The Third Mind/2, released last October) included reinterpretations The Electric Flag’s ‘‘Groovin’ is Easy’ and The Jaynetts’ haunting “Sally Go Round the Roses.”

“One of the reasons why I’m leaning toward the ‘60s sort of underground songs,” explains Alvin, “is that all of those [artists] came out of the folk/blues/garage band kind of thing.” He says that within tradition is where he has always worked. “It’s a different way of playing it,” he admits, “But it’s the same stuff; it’s the same starting point.”

Only on an improvisational classic like The Butterfield Blues Band’s “East West” (featured on The Third Mind) does the group present an arrangement with more than a passing resemblance to the original. And even in the case of “East West,” Alvin and his band mates are never reined in by preconceived ideas as to where the song “should” go.

Yet neither Krumenacher nor Alvin is comfortable with the label “jam band” being applied to what The Third Mind does. Alvin admits that “all of us have been involved in enough jams” to concede that there’s a fine line between the two. But with a chuckle, he observes that in group improvisation, “you’re listening to each other more than thinking, ‘Boy, I got off a good lick!’ And you’re going toward something. Where in jamming, it’s like, ‘Fuck it; I don’t care!’”

Krummenacher agrees. “Rock and roll jamming does leave a bad taste in my mouth,” he says. But the give-and-take of improvisation at its best is something that he has grown to love. “When I came up, the Grateful Dead were poison,” he admits. “Now I listen to them and love it.”

Alvin says that with most of his other musical endeavors, “there are those one or two places where we don’t know what’s going to happen.” That keeps things interesting for the players and the audience alike. “But with The Third Mind,” he emphasizes, “that’s the whole show!”

Asked to what degree that spontaneity extends with The Third Mind–do they even use a set list?–Krummenacher and Alvin cast glances at each other before breaking into laughter.

“We did, the one time we played live!” Alvin cackles. For these dates on the band’s first-ever tour, audiences will simply have to show up and find out.

Playing together during the completely improvised sessions that yielded their debut–and more recently its followup–has helped the five musicians develop a kind of mind meld, unspoken communication between them. So while they’re conforming to structure ever so briefly as each tune lifts off, from there it’s anybody’s guess. “It’s in the interior of the songs where things are going to happen,” says Alvin.

At this point in their respective careers, the members of The Third Mind are willingly facing–inviting, even–the unknown. “We’re trying to embrace the good, forward-thinking elements in the music,” Krummenacher explains. “The idea is really rooted in what great music [represents]: freedom, exploration, fun.”

“So much of contemporary pop music is choreographed completely,” Alvin says. “Roots music, too.” He says that he gets bored with “dance moves and AutoTune.” And taking that into consideration, he chuckles and suggests, “So maybe the most punk rock thing to do is have a group like The Third Mind.”

9pm, Jan. 19, Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz, $32/adv, $35/door, moe’salley.com

Wooten Brothers from left, Victor, Joseph, Roy “Futureman” and Regi Wooten. PHOTO: Steven-Parke

Welcome to Wooton


If you’re a bass player who suffers from frequent bouts of career envy, you may want to skip this introduction and head straight to the interview. 

That way, you won’t have to dwell on the fact that Victor Wooten has won five Grammy Awards and been hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the “Top 10 Bassists of All Time.” 

You’ll also be able to overlook his work as a founding member of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, his solo albums for the legendary Vanguard jazz label, his power trio with bass legends Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller, and his session work with artists ranging from Bill Evans and Jaco Pastorius to Gov’t Mule and Keb’ Mo’.

Wooten’s professional career began earlier than most. He was 6 years old when he and his older brothers—Roy, Regi, Rudy and Joseph—graduated from performing in their front yard to touring as the opening act for Curtis Mayfield. 

Moving from base to base with their military parents, The Wooten Brothers were naturally drawn to playing USO shows overseas, and went so far as to record a not-so-successful self-titled album for Arista Records. Not long after, the brothers disbanded to pursue other musical projects, with Victor and Roy going on to form the Flecktones with the multidisciplinary banjo player Béla Fleck.

Wooten has also written a pair of critically acclaimed allegorical novels, The Music Lesson and The Spirit of Music: The Lesson ContinuesThe Washington Post praised the latter as “a book that stands happily against traditional music pedagogy and canned notions of achievement.”

Now, Wooten is back out on the road with brothers Joseph, Regi and Roy for a winter tour as the Wooten Brothers. We caught up with him between rehearsals to talk about legendary bassists, being compared to Carlos Castañeda, and what happens when you can’t get your fingers to play the right notes.

Q: You’ve been pretty busy over the past few decades: 15 albums with Béla Fleck, 10 albums of your own, the bass collaborations…

Victor Wooten: I’ve been fortunate, I’ve been very fortunate.

Q: You’ve also played on tons of other artists’ albums. Was there a point where you realized you were becoming a kind of “hot-call” session player?

Wooten: That didn’t happen until I started playing with Béla Fleck. I’d grown up playing as the bassist with my four older brothers, the five of us, The Wooten Brothers. I always thought my whole career was gonna be with them. And it was a bad record deal in the early ’80s that caused the five of us to not be playing exclusively together. 

And then, a few years later, I met Béla, and I wasn’t doing much, so I did some stuff with him. And here we are, 35 or so years later, and we’re still doing it. But I didn’t know that was going to be my kind of call to fame, where people started to recognize me. Once the Flecktones became very popular, then I started getting more calls.

Q: And how old were you when you figured out that the bass would be your primary instrument?

Wooten: Oh, I knew that from birth…

Q: How does that work? Were you listening to a lot of Stanley Clarke in the womb?

Wooten: Not in the womb, unfortunately. I was born in 1964, and by the time they [Return to Forever] hit the scene, I was already out playing gigs. I’d started playing gigs before I started kindergarten. 

Q: Seriously?

Wooten: I’m not joking. My brothers got me doing it, because they needed a bass player.

Q: How did you even hold a bass at that age, let alone play it? I mean, maybe if it was a short-scale Hofner….

Wooten: That’s exactly what my first bass was. Well, it was a Univox copy of a Hofner, and it looked just like Paul McCartney’s Hofner.

But actually, my very first instrument—I was looking at photos of me playing my first gigs—was a four-string guitar. Reggie took two of the strings off his electric guitar, and I used that as a bass in those first early days. But then my parents found that Univox.

Q: Were your parents musicians?

Wooten: No, but they were very musical. They grew up in a Baptist church where instruments weren’t allowed. They were allowed to sing, but there were no instruments.

Q: In “The Music Lesson,” you write about a teacher who appears out of nowhere to guide a young musician on his journey. Were there teachers you encountered in your life who played that kind of role?

Wooten: Absolutely, absolutely. And we’ve all had them. That’s how we learned to talk, walk, or do anything, is through teachers. Whether they were labeled a teacher or not, that’s how we did it.

One of my biggest influences was Stanley Clarke. And I remember exactly when those records came out, even though I was very young. My brothers were into it, and so I was into it, too. Stanley played with fire, in a way that bass players weren’t doing at the time. So when Stanley came with that heavy attack and those rapid-fire notes, it woke all of us bass players up to something new.  

But he’s not the only one I’ve learned from. Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins, Jaco Pastorius, there’s a bunch of them. James Jamerson, of course, Chuck Rainey, Carol Kaye, Bob Babbitt, Duck Dunn, all the people that played on the music that a lot of us players grew up with in the ’60s and ’70s. But Stanley was really—and still is—my No. 1 hero when it comes to electric bass. 

Q: So going on to record with Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller, two very different and very legendary bass players, I can’t imagine not being freaked out by just the idea of that. I know you were well into your career at that point, but what was that like for you?

Wooten: Yeah, there were some freak-out moments. Because I met Stanley Clarke when I was 9, and I was much older by the time I met Marcus. So every time I’m near Stanley Clarke, I feel 9 again. It was hard to get over that, because I was being treated as an equal. And, in my mind, I’m not. I’m the little brother. 

Q: When your second novel came out “The Washington Post” critic Ben Ratliff compared it to Carlos Castañeda’s books about Don Juan, the Yaqui Indian guide that he insisted was real, and others say was fictitious. But you don’t make any claims that the teacher in your novels is real.

Wooten: Well, you know, the main thing with these stories—whether it’s the teacher in my story, or Don Juan, or whatever—is that you weren’t there. So to you, it’s just a story, right? And whether I say it’s real or not, it’s just whether you believe. So what’s real or false? It’s up to you.

Q: I’m sure a philosopher could debate that with you endlessly.

Wooten: Yeah, and he’d be wrong. Because you decide what truth is. 

Q: So the author’s intent doesn’t matter?

Wooten: No, it’s up to you. I’d like to know the author’s intent. But I don’t want the author to decide for me.

Q: A lot of lyricists won’t reveal to fans or critics what a song is about, because that can spoil it for the listener.

Wooten: Yeah, I mean, it can. But that’s also up to you, too. I approach my book as fiction, just to try to alleviate the argument of what was real and what was false, because it doesn’t matter. What’s real are the lessons. The story may not be. And I read every story that way. Whether you tell me it’s real or not, whether it’s the Bible, I don’t care whether it’s real, I wasn’t there. By the time it reaches my ear, it’s a story. So I put my attention on what I can learn from it.

Q: There’s a book devoted to James Jamerson, who you mentioned earlier, called “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” which has nearly 200 pages of transcripts of his basslines. The problem is that there’s really no way to get the feel of that music onto the page. Was that something you contended with doing your own book of transcripts, and were there tricks you used to get around that?

Wooten: Well, what I did in my transcriptions is, I would not only write the notes, but I would put a number under the note. In other words, if I wrote a C, I may put a 3 underneath it. That lets you know, I play that C on the A string, third fret. And then, if I was hitting the note with my thumb, I put the letter T under the 3. So I put as much technique in this as possible. And the hope is for you to listen to it and get what it’s supposed to feel like, at least when I played it. But it’s allowed to be different when you play it.

Q: The James Jamerson book did include two CDs. But it’s still impossible for me—I mean, I’m a white guy—to get that vibe. I hope that doesn’t sound racist, but….

Wooten: No, not at all. I get it. The same way you have a certain voice, I have a certain voice. Our accents are going to be different, and it’s supposed to be that way. The thing is, if Jamerson played it, he would not be able to play it like you.

Q You mean like a metronome that’s not working quite right?

Wooten: I mean, if that’s what it is. But either way, James Jamerson only has his voice. Everybody has their own voice—they play the way they play—and it’s hard to be able to speak someone else’s voice.

Q: One last question. I read an interview a while back in which you mentioned having an affliction where your brain tells your fingers to play the wrong notes. Is that a real thing? Because if it is, that means I’ve had it ever since I first picked up an instrument.

Wooten:  [Laughs.] It’s totally legit. It’s called focal dystonia, and people from all walks of life get it. And what ends up happening is you lose the ability to do what you’ve done all the time, whether it’s writing, whether it’s golf, whether it’s gymnastics, whether it’s walking. And it’s something that takes over your brain and tells your limb or your digit to do it the wrong way. 

Q: How have you managed to deal with that? 

Wooten: I’ve had to learn to play around it as I work on it. The thing is, my fingers work perfectly without the bass. I can still imitate playing it. But as soon as I pick up a bass, three of my fingers on my left hand curl into a ball and don’t want to operate. So I’m working with a woman who’s helping me retrain my brain. But it’s a struggle to get them to hit individually on the string. It’s just the brain has learned to tell the fingers the wrong thing. 

Q: There are times, maybe not frequently, where the wrong note can be a good thing.

Wooten: Of course. Mistakes are usually just things I didn’t mean to do. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It’s sort of like when you’re driving, you take a wrong turn, that road will still get you to where you’re going. Any road will get you there. And when you take that wrong turn, it might mean that you see something you didn’t expect. 

So wrong doesn’t mean wrong, it doesn’t mean bad. And wrong notes can definitely take you into a better place than you were headed in the first place. If life happened exactly as you wanted it to every time, you would be bored.  

7:30pm,Jan 19, Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, $42-$63, riotheatre.com

MASTER JUGGLER Harding offers a spicy mixing bowl of artistic cookery to stimulate the imagination. Photo: Ilya Mirman

Wonders Never Cease


Wesley Stace—also known by his former stage name, John Wesley Harding—answers questions in the most delightful way. In his English accent—he’s originally from Hastings—he flits and swoops and dives like a thoughtful bird, the kind that folds itself into a bullet every so often. I’m sure I have this image in mind based on something he once said to a class I was in: for him, making music is like juggling a feather, while writing is like juggling a much heavier thing.

Whatever the case, he’s juggling. 

Stace is doing a tour up the West Coast this month, playing in Watsonville at Studio Judy G’s on Wednesday, January 24th before heading north to Novato. During the pandemic, he recorded an album that has proven pivotal in his career—2021’s Late Style—but to catch up with Stace involves much more than harvesting a few new tales from the studio. In the last year alone, he has edited and written the introduction for the Music Stories anthology for the Everyman Pocket Classics collection (a stunning hardcover, out on February 13), published several high-profile book reviews, begun teaching a public class on 18th century writer Laurence Sterne, seen his libretto for Errollyn Wallen’s opera Dido’s Ghost produced in San Francisco, and—alas, for the sake of this article’s word count, I have to stop there.

Astounded by the breadth of what he’s been up to, I ask him the loftiest question right off the bat: Wes, you span genres, mediums, and centuries…what’s at the core for you? 

“I like stirring the artistic pot,” he says, “and seeing how you can make things that are quite different from each other all cohere.”

This ethos—somewhere between mad scientist and unbridled collector of curiosities—finds perfect embodiment in Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders, a variety show that he curates at City Winery in New York City, just a hop from his homebase in Philadelphia. Billed as “a little bit vaudeville, a little bit literary and a lot rock ‘n’ roll,” the ongoing series brings together eclectic mixtures of musicians, literati and comedians for a madcap night. Around this time last year, CAB104 included bassist Toby Leaman of the rock band Dr. Dog, singer-songwriter Langhorne Slim, actor/writer Amber Tamblyn, comedian David Cross, and more.

“What’s basically happening with the Cabinet is I’m taking a lot of disparate things that are all quite distinct from each other and trying to mold them into a coherent beautiful show” Stace says. Time Out New York described the show, wonderfully, as “an awesome mythological beast.” The same description could go for Stace’s whole career.

Comfort with risk is a key ingredient in Stace’s creativity, and lately it has led him toward an unexpected genre evolution. After decades of albums in the folk-rock lineage of Bob Dylan—whose 1967 album John Wesley Harding inspired the name Stace used to record under—the songwriter has moved toward jazz in Late Style on Omnivore Recordings.

“I just got to a bit of an impasse with my own kind of folk-rock albums,” he says, “and I just was like, why can’t my music swing a bit more like the jazz that I listen to in the kitchen?”

With artists that have successfully merged jazz, folk and pop in mind—Joni Mitchell, Mose Allison, Randy Newman, etc.—Stace turned to long-time friend David Nagler for help breaking out of familiar folk chords, rhythms and melodies.

“I suddenly thought, why don’t I just give him some lyrics? Why don’t I just give up the tunes?” he says. “Because we’ve been traveling in vans and cars and doing shows together for ten years, we speak the same music language. He knows what I want without me having to explain it for him.”

The resulting album is smoother (and more relaxing to sing, according to Stace) than the rest of his oeuvre. The songs retain his signature playful storytelling, tinged this time with undertones of a pandemic. On “Do Nothing If You Can,” for example, Stace snaps his fingers and croons a strangely menacing refrain: “Here’s the plan / Do nothing if you can.”

A second album in this hybrid, jazzy domain is already deep in the works. Stace is enjoying the challenge of arranging the songs for his upcoming solo acoustic performances.

Oh, and he’s writing another novel, which will soon join Misfortune and the three others he has published. “I’m trying to make it the most beautiful thing I can possibly imagine writing, because I think lockdown affected us in those kind of ways. I just wanted everything to be nice and beautiful—that everything would seduce you and be lovely.”

I can’t help but wonder how this push toward polish and elegance in all his work of late squares with Stace’s longtime association with the rough world of rock ‘n’ roll. (This is the same musician who opened for and performed with Bruce Springsteen in the 90s.)

“There are certain rock bands I love, but it’s generally not for that strutting-around-the-stage kind of thing. I don’t like that,” he says. “What I like is brilliantly beautifully thought-out lyrics and songs. And they can be in any genre because I love words.”

7pm, Jan. 24, Studio Judy G, 430 Main St. $20 donation, studiojudyg.com

HOMELAND San Jose native and self-taught guitarist, Castro rose to play with huge names in the music scene before becoming one himself. Photo: Victoria Smith

Tommy in Town

By Bill Forman

From the Who’s “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” to Green Day’s “American Idiot” and Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” the pop music world has produced more than its fair share of rock operas and concept albums. But unless you count Muddy Waters’ “Electric Mud”—a psychedelic blues project that producer Marshall Chess described as “a concept album like David Bowie being Ziggy Stardust”—blues artists have steered clear of all of that.

So when Tommy Castro first hit upon the idea of writing and recording a blues opera—or, as he puts it, “sort of a blues opera”—he was surprised that no one had thought to do it before. Soon, the six-time Blues Music Award winner was in the studio with Nashville producer Tom Hambridge, co-writing and recording tracks like “Child Don’t Go,” “Women, Drugs and Alcohol” and “I Want to Go Back Home” for a concept album about an aspiring guitarist who leaves the family farm in search of success, gives in to the temptations of life on the road, and realizes that there is, in fact, no place like home.

“Tommy Castro Presents A Bluesman Came to Town”—which came out in September 2021 on Alligator Records and debuted at No. 2 on the “Billboard” magazine Blues Chart—may not have the most original plotline, but that wasn’t really the point.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be as epic as, you know, the Who’s ‘Tommy’ or ‘The Wall’ (by Pink Floyd) or ‘American Idiot,’ where people had giant recording budgets and all kinds of amazing creativity,” said the soulful singer and guitarist in a recent phone interview. “But the idea of telling a story from the beginning to the end, that appealed to me. I kicked the idea around with the record label, and then I talked to my producer, who got really excited about the concept. So that’s how it came about, and then it was just a matter of doing it and hoping it was good.”

“A Bluesman Came to Town” is also a departure for Castro because his band The Painkillers doesn’t play on it. “I usually prefer to use my own band—I’ve done that on 18 out of 19 records—because they’re out on the road with me doing all the hard work,” said Castro.

“But Tom Hambridge wanted to use his studio guys, and he’s kind of a big deal. He’s got a few Grammys under his belt, and he’s worked on the last few Buddy Guy albums, as well as with ZZ Top, George Thorogood, Johnny Winter and Joe Bonamassa, you know, a lot of people. So I kind of followed his lead on this album.”

Since the album’s release, Castro and the Painkillers have returned to the more than 150 shows per year schedule that the San Jose native has maintained for most of the past four decades. Along the way, he’s earned a loyal fan base as well as the respect of artists like John Lee Hooker, who did his final session on Castro’s “Guilty of Love” album. All of which still amazes him.

“Where I grew up was a notch or two below a working-class neighborhood, and nobody there was going to college or getting music lessons or any of that stuff,” said the self-taught guitarist, who spent his early years playing along to records by his favorite blues artists.

“I tend to like the slower guys—like Michael Bloomfield, B.B. King, Albert King, Muddy Waters and Elmore James—because I could figure out what they were doing,” he said.

As time went on, Castro realized he was going to be making his living playing music. He tried taking guitar lessons and studied music theory. “But it was too late,” he said. “I’d already learned to play the way I did, and I couldn’t really switch over to the proper way of doing it.

“I still work on my guitar technique every day, trying to learn something new, even if it’s just some new licks,” Castro said. “But I’m no virtuoso, I’m no Bonamassa, I’m not that kind of guitarist. I’m more of a cross between John Lee Hooker and, I don’t know, Michael Bloomfield, maybe. Somewhere in there. I kind of just play the way I play, and it works for me, you know?” 

3:30pm, Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz, $30/adv, $35 door, moesalley.com


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