Jazz Powwow 

Bassist John-Carlos Perea fuses Native American soul with urban rhythms.

Both jazz and American Indian music come from the same place if you look at them in terms of the drum and the duality of the social and spiritual aspects of the music," says electric bassist and composer John-Carlos Perea from his home in San Francisco. "This is not to take away from the fact that the real influences that shaped jazz were from Africa but as [Native American poet and soprano saxophonist] Joy Harjo says, 'Native people were there too when everything was going down in Congo Square.'"

On Monday night at Yoshi's in Oakland, Jazz in Flight hosts a CD release celebration for Perea and his sextet's debut outing, First Dance (Aerep Music). Backed by Chris Gonzalez-Clarke (guitar), Jimmy Biala (percussion), Royal Hartigan (drums), and sax heavies Hafez Modirzadeh and Francis Wong, Perea presents a blend of bicultural ideas drawing from both American Indian powwow music and progressive jazz, using traditional instruments like the cedar flute.

"The idea of fusing native music with jazz happened after I got into San Francisco State and began studying with Dr. Dee Spencer," remembers Perea. "I was still in high school when I started at State, and she turned me on to John Coltrane. I was listening to Coltrane and I said, 'Wow, this guy sounds like he's been listening to powwow music.' I didn't know any better. Then Francis Wong turned me on to Jim Pepper, and after finding Jim Pepper's music, that was it."

The Native American heritage of jazz greats such as Charles Mingus, Sheila Jordan, and Oscar Pettiford is little known, but in the 1970s a Lakota Sioux saxophonist named Jim Pepper began collaborating with icons Don Pullen and Don Cherry, composing jazz works from a distinctly American Indian perspective. "That first Pepper's Powwow album, where he was mixing peyote songs with jazz and turning it into this whole country-jazz-Indian fusion thing, solidified the idea with me."

Born in New Mexico on the Hickory Apache reservation but raised in the Excelsior District of SF, the 26-year-old was given some albums by an American Indian rock group called Xit. This got Perea into playing both bass and guitar, but it was Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius who affirmed the bass for him. Perea's American Indian music mentor was SF State professor Barney Hoehner-Peji who taught him songs and helped him connect with the Blue Horse Singers, a traditional Native American drum group.

From a rendition of Coltrane's "Naima" played on a cedar flute and sung in an American Indian style, to his pointed "Blues for My Blood Quantum," Perea is a unique artistic voice dedicated to using the improvisatory language of jazz to speak about the condition of Indians, urban Indians in particular.

"A lot of people think that the only credibility in native culture is on the reservation, but that's not true. We are the bridge between traditional and modern knowledge because we walk in both those worlds. I'm trying to get people to see Indians in a different light beyond the Atlanta Braves and the tomahawk chop thing or the cigar store Indian image."


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