Spend a little time checking out jazz and kindred musical styles in the East Bay and it will quickly become apparent that the scene is like a big family. But even in that close-knit context, Alma Matters stands out as a project defined by a tangled web of overlapping relationships arising out of birth, marriage, and grade-school seating charts.
“It’s why I called it Alma Matters,” said Berkeley flutist, drummer and vocalist Jeff Weinmann, who adopted the double entendre moniker as a reference to both its scholastic origins and foundational soul-infused sounds (alma means soul in Spanish). “I remember hearing Peter Apfelbaum play ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’ in elementary school, and that made me want to be a musician.”
Though long based in Brooklyn, Apfelbaum, a multi-instrumentalist composer and arranger, has maintained deep ties to the Bay Area scene, particularly with fellow alumni of the groundbreaking Berkeley Unified School District jazz program set in motion by Dr. Herb Wong in the late 1960s. Weinmann launched Alma Matters about a decade ago with Apfelbaum as a studio collaboration recorded by sound engineer and Santana trombonist Jeff Cressman, who all met at Berkeley’s Longfellow Elementary School. Alma Matters has steadily expanded over the years, and the group that performs Tuesday at Yoshi’s encompasses a startling array of African diaspora musical idioms performed by a cast of world-class players hailing from several prominent musical clans.
The BUSD ties link 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 Grammy nominee saxophonist/composer Remy Le Boeuf’s Assembly of Shadows Saturday at the Sound Room. Blood and marriage connect Alma Matters vocalist and Brazilian music specialist Sandy Cressman and her daughter (with Jeff), trombonist and vocalist Natalie Cressman, whose duo with Berkeley-based Brazilian-born guitarist/vocalist Ian Faquini, a Yoshi’s special guest, has cut a brilliant post-bossa nova path.
“That’s the beauty of it, we’ve got these very deep roots,” said Jeff Cressman, who noted that many of the Alma Matters musicians have also bonded at Jazz Camp West in La Honda, the intensive summer program produced by Living Jazz, an arts nonprofit that also brings free music education to Oakland public schools and produces the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day 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 band Giant Hamburger. We’d do parties, playing at openings for recycling centers and playground structures. We were already playing music together as kids. It’s a trip to have someone in your life that long.”
The Alma Matters rhythm section includes Oakland brothers Steve and Colin Hogan, on bass and keyboards, respectively, and Berkeley guitarist John Schott, a creative music stalwart 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, lead choreographer and co-director of the Oakland’s Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company (a portion of the concert’s ticket revenue is slated for Destiny Arts Center).
In many ways, Alma Matters builds on the insistently omnivorous concept behind Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphics Ensemble, a sprawling world jazz combo he created at Berkeley High that drew on West African folk forms, funk, Afro-Caribbean percussion, and avant-garde jazz. He’s reassembled it several times over the years with both Bay Area and New York iterations, though both featured a large Berkeley High cohort. It was the group in which Natalie Cressman played some of her early gigs, long before going on the road with Phish’s Trey Anastasio.
The Hieroglyphics Ensemble has been mostly dormant in recent years, and Apfelbaum has hit Bay Area stages in the bands of brilliant Cuban musicians like drummer Dafnis Prieto and pianist Omar Sosa, or with his smaller combo Sparkler, a bright brass-driven combo that also showcases Cressman. Alma Matters has become another forum for stylistically expansive collaboration.
“Alma Matters is a great example of how the BUSD jazz program spawned all these players who went into their own worlds,” Apfelbaum said. “I see a similarity with Hieroglyphics in the instrumentation and rhythmic foundations. It’s Jeff’s vision and one thing I love is that the focus is on songs. It could be reggae, funk, gospel, or African-American spirituals, I see songs as people’s music. And I have freedom to orchestrate the tunes, which take on their own particular shapes.”
Given Apfelbaum and everyone else’s busy schedule before the pandemic, assembling the Alma Matters team usually took place around the end-of-the-year holidays, which meant Weinmann spent six years creating the project’s eponymous 2017 album. In recent years he’s concentrated on commissioning and creating videos for new Alma Matters pieces, including several tunes premiering at Yoshi’s.
Talking to Weinmann it’s easy to see how Alma Matters keeps expanding. Each new piece becomes a 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.” At Yoshi’s, Kelly and Rashidi Omari will be featured on the sequel, “Follow The Drinking Gourd,” the second installment in an emancipationist tryptic about attaining freedom.
A song about using the stars for nighttime navigation (the drinking gourd is the Big Dipper) during the Underground Railroad, the video-in-progress will feature Omari and members of Destiny Arts Youth Ensemble. “I want the kids to write about what their North Star is now,” Weinmann said.
Whatever arrangement the words are set to, Alma Matters embodies a message that’s as profound as its spiritually charged sound. Making music can bind people together, feeding a creative communion that evolves over the decades.