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Musical chemistry is a mysterious force that can elevate a performance from entertaining to sublime. Pair the same highly skilled players without it and their encounter can quickly turn forgettable, or worse. And affection off stage doesn’t always translate into potent bandstand alchemy, but in the case of Oakland flutist and singer Rebecca Kleinmann and Berkeley vocalist Tiffany Austin, a recently minted friendship has sparked some richly rewarding musical adventures.
This coming Saturday is Kleinmann’s birthday and she’s celebrating with a livestream concert from Oakland’s Sound Room featuring Austin as a special guest. Joining them will be Brazilian percussionist Will Martins and ace pianist Tammy Hall.
The performance brings Kleinmann and Austin back to the venue where their friendship began. Two years ago, Sound Room proprietors Karen Van Leuven and Robert Bradsby invited some of their favorite musicians over to help break in the new space, which had moved eight blocks east from the corner of Broadway and 22nd Street to 3022 Broadway.
“I walk through the door and somebody is shredding on flute. Who the hell is that?!” recalled Austin. “I’m watching her playing really hip jazz tunes and Brazilian tunes, just singing through her flute. After my band went on I caught her on my way out the door and said ‘You’re incredible,’ and she said ‘I think you’re incredible.’”
The two started including each other in their gigs, like Austin’s September 2019 “Bossa Meets Blues” show at Piedmont Piano Company. While inspiring each other on stage, they’ve had each other’s backs in real life too.
When Kleinmann returned from her most recent annual trip to Brazil, she had to find a new place to live. “Tiffany brought a friend and her car and moved me,” Kleinmann said. “She’s really been there for me, and I’ve tried to return the favor. We get together and laugh a lot. She’s someone I can call to share great news with.”
Kleinmann came through for Austin last month when legendary tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders invited Austin to join his band at the Los Angeles club Zebulon for a livestreamed 80th birthday celebration. Leary of flying and in need of a ride to Los Angeles, Kleinmann drove her friend to the gig.
For Saturday’s Sound Room show, the women plan to cover a lot of musical territory.
“I’ve been obsessed with McCoy Tyner’s ‘Fly With the Wind,’ so we’ll be doing that,” said Kleinmann. Lee Morgan’s “Ceora,” and Freddie Hubbard’s “Open Sesame” are also on their set list.
Austin and Kleinmann have both developed a “Bossa Meets Blues” repertoire, but Austin said Saturday’s show will sound different. “We both have really distinctive styles and they compliment each other in ways that are not necessarily obvious. At our first performance, we did a duet with some gutbucket blues into some really intricate Brazilian stuff. Both Rebecca and I like to be challenged.”
In a Bay Area scene rife with jazz artists who have delved deeply into Brazil’s vast and verdant musical terrain, Kleinmann is best known as a skilled student of the nation’s many overlapping idioms (she’s also well-versed in flamenco). Since moving to the East Bay from Los Angeles, she has performed widely in a duo with Brazilian-born, Berkeley-reared guitarist and composer Ian Faquini and recorded a gorgeous album with the three-flute, percussion and two guitar sextet Kata-Vento, which focused on tunes by Recife guitarist Carlos Oliveira.
In recent years, she has played with Dona Francisca, a six-piece band devoted to the populist, accordion-driven dance music from northeastern Brazil known as forró. Whatever styles Kleinmann explores, she approaches with her whole body, absorbing an entirely different kind of knowledge than what her early training in European classical music provided her.
“In classical, everything is focused on sound production, on embouchure and beautiful tone. I’ve had to consciously settle myself into the rhythms, and the best way is dance, as well as lots of listening and jamming.”
Like Kleinmann, Austin relocated to the East Bay in 2009, but she was coming from Japan, where she spent five years working as a nightclub singer. Studying at the UC Berkeley School of Law, she found herself desperate for a creative outlet. After the grinding first year of law school, she started taking classes at the California Jazz Conservatory. Before long, she connected with bassist Marcus Shelby and performed with him around the region. Produced by Oakland saxophonist Howard Wiley, her debut album “Nothing But Soul” earned national attention, including a coveted Kevin Whitehead review on the public radio institution “Fresh Air.”
Austin has collaborated with some of jazz’s most celebrated artists, and she embraces opportunities to work with other women.
“When I lived in Japan I didn’t meet many female musicians,” Austin said, noting that pianist Tammy Hall is another treasured musical partner. “The other hook up is we all love music that’s soulful that crosses genres. So we’re celebrating Rebecca’s birthday and celebrating the great arc of soulful music that we all love.”