You can take the boy out of Berkeley, but good luck trying to take Berkeley out of the boy. That seems to be a guiding principle in the creative world of tenor saxophonist and composer Peter Apfelbaum. Though he settled in Brooklyn in 1998, Apfelbaum has continued to thrive on the East Coast through his strong connections with musicians he first met in the Berkeley public school system back in the early '70s. He presents pieces from his upcoming Act Music release It Is Written on Sunday as part of the ninth annual Jazz on Fourth Street festival, a free event that benefits the Berkeley High Performing Arts Program. Running from noon until 5 p.m., the festival also features blues guitarist Chris Cain, the superb Cuban roots band Palenque, and the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble and Combo in their first local performances since taking third place and first place, respectively, at last month's Next Generation Festival in Monterey.
Though Apfelbaum has been a scarce East Bay presence in recent years, his inclusion in a benefit for Berkeley High's vaunted jazz band is very apt. As a product of the class of 1978, Apfelbaum is one of the brighter blooms in the first glorious flowering of the jazz program launched by Dr. Herb Wong, along with illustrious peers such as Will Bernard, Steven Bernstein, Peck Almond, Rodney Franklin, Paul Hanson, and Josh Jones. For Sunday's Fourth Street gig, Apfelbaum, who also plays keyboard and percussion, has assembled a septet that features percussionist Josh Jones, guitarist John Schott, violinist Rachel Durling, trombonist Jeff Cressman, drummer Deszon X. Claiborne, and bassist John Shifflett, musicians with whom he has been collaborating for more than two decades.
"I really value long working relationships," Apfelbaum says during an afternoon repast at Celadon on Solano Avenue, noting that the "homemade" nature of his music, drawing freely from West African and Afro-Caribbean sources, means that inculcating new players into the group concept can take a good deal of time. "We don't really have pieces where you can tell the drummer that this has a swing beat or this has a reggae beat. I'm looking for the power of a rock drummer, the subtlety of a jazz drummer, and the imaginative subdividing of beats of an Afro-Cuban drummer. For the Fourth Street gig, there's been enough history with these players that there's a lot we don't have to rehearse anymore."
Apfelbaum first gained national attention with his sprawling, stylistically polyglot seventeen-piece Hieroglyphics Ensemble. Since moving to New York, he has continued to work with Berkeley High alumni, playing regularly with Steven Bernstein's romping Millennial Territory Orchestra, a group that deconstructs big band pieces from the 1920s and '30s, and the Kamikaze Ground Crew, a wildly eclectic, circus-like septet that includes Bernstein, drummer Kenny Wollesen, and accordionist Gena Leishman, the California Shakespeare Festival's house composer. He also has written and arranged songs for Harry Belafonte, gigged with the amazing Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto, traveled to Morocco with percussionist Cyro Baptista's world jazz ensemble Beat the Donkey, and toured the jam band circuit with Phish's Trey Anastasio. "I can trace just about everything I'm doing back to Berkeley High and what we were exploring with Phil Hardymon," Apfelbaum says.
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