Saxophone player Rent Romus takes a break during an improvised jazz performance with beat poet Ruth Weiss. The Richmond-based musician and his band kick off the new West Oakland concert series at Dresher Ensemble Studio on Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022. Credit: Jeremy Snowden

While the omicron surge is decimating the early winter concert season, a new series showcasing the Bay Area’s verdant experimental and improvised music scene offers some respite from the wave of canceled gigs. 

West Oakland Sessions, presented by Jazz in the Neighborhood and the multidisciplinary performance hub New Performance Traditions, will take place in the spacious Dresher Ensemble Studio just off West Grand Avenue. The 10-concert series opens this Sunday with Richmond saxophonist Rent Romus’ rambunctious Life’s Blood Ensemble and runs through May 22 with a closing performance led by bassist Lisa Mezzacappa.  

The concerts in between feature an array of the region’s most adventurous players, including San Jose tenor saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh’s microtonal trio Facets, with pianist Alex Peh and drummer Keshav Batish (March 20); Positive Knowledge, the dynamic Oakland couple of multi-reedist Oluyemi and vocalist/poet Ijeoma Thomas, with drummer Donald Robinson (April 10); and San Francisco saxophonist Beth Schenck’s folk chamber jazz quartet House of Faern, with violinist Jenny Scheinman (April 24). 

“Considering the experimental nature of what Paul Dresher does, the studio seemed like a really natural place for this to happen,” said veteran trumpeter Mario Guarneri, the director and co-founder of Jazz in the Neighborhood, a nonprofit that produces numerous concerts around the Bay Area while advocating for (and offering) fair compensation for musicians.

Audiences will be limited to half of the studio’s maximum capacity and the concerts include safety protocols designed to keep listeners, musicians, and staff safe, with ticket holders and artists all required to provide proof of full vaccination (including a booster). With a dearth of East Bay venues open to experimental music right now, the series fills a conspicuous void. 

“Knowing it’s so hard for the whole music community now, we wanted to create a series focusing on these genres, where the music really needs to be heard in a concert presentation,” Guarneri said, noting that the music provides an immersive experience rather than setting an ambiance. “In most cases [artists] can’t just walk into a bar or a restaurant for a gig.”

In developing the West Oakland Sessions roster, Guarneri worked closely with Dresher and Paul Dresher Ensemble Executive Director Dominique Pelletey, whose 11-year tenure at San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music turned the organization into a powerhouse known for its signature SF Music Day event (which takes place March 22 this year). He also consulted with several musicians to curate a series that features artists known for both forging distinctive sounds and building a DIY scene that’s mostly overlooked by high-profile venues like the SFJAZZ Center and Yoshi’s. 

Over the past three decades, few artists have done more to support the Bay Area’s experimental music ethos than Romus, whose Edgetone label has released more than 200 albums encompassing free jazz, avant rock, electronic, and experimental music. He’s put out albums by several other West Oakland Sessions artists and presented just about every one via Outsound, the nonprofit organization he founded that produced weekly concerts at San Francisco’s Luggage Store Gallery for two decades before the pandemic.  

In recent years, Romus has developed a singular body of music inspired by The Kalevala, a compendium of epic poetry, folklore, and mythology that played an essential role in sparking Finnish national identity in the mid-19th century. Inspired by his Finnish heritage, he’s honed a powerful synthesis of avant-garde jazz and traditional Finnish music in his Life Blood Ensemble with San Francisco-based Finnish multi-instrumentalist Heikki Koskinen. 

At Sunday’s concert, he’ll be premiering several pieces from a new suite, 

“Itquaj,” a Finnish word that means crying or lamentation. “When I was in Finland in 2019 I went to the Karelian Cultural Museum and there was a whole section on the lament, which uses a specific register but like classical Indian music it’s purely up to the lamenter to create melodic lines,” Romus said. “We’ll do some of those pieces and then we’re premiering the whole suite at SF Music Day.”

Many of the other musicians featured in the West Oakland Sessions are internationally recognized artists. Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg played a seminal role in the radical Jewish music movement in the late 1980s and has been a creative catalyst on the Bay Area jazz scene ever since. He performs Feb. 20 with Porch Concert Material, a new trio with guitarist Liberty Ellman and drummer Gerald Cleaver, heavyweight New York players who recently joined the faculty at the California Jazz Conservatory. 

San Rafael tenor saxophonist and vocalist Richard Howell performs with his band Sudden Changes on Feb. 27. His far-reaching command of blues, R&B, and various jazz idioms has been honed via the years he spent touring with stars like Etta James and Chaka Khan. The latest version of Sudden Changes is a multi-generational affair with piano maestro Frederick Harris, bassist and Oaktown Jazz Workshop Director Ravi Abcarian, percussionist David Frazier, trombonist Jasim Perales, violinist Miles Quale, and drummer Elé Salif Howell (Richard’s son and a rising force in New York City who’s been performing with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane). 

One of the musicians Guarneri consulted about the series was Oakland guitarist Karl Evangelista, a graduate of Mills College’s vaunted music program. “He and Jazz in the Neighborhood see that music emanating from this tradition of experimentalism is very embedded in the fabric of Bay Area jazz,” he said. “They wanted to grant that phenomenon some degree of exposure.”

Evangelista performs with a new trio on March 13 featuring saxophonist Larry Ochs and drummer Donald Robinson, who’ve worked and recorded together widely as a duo, including last year’s acclaimed ESP-Disk release

A Civil Right. While they’ve been playing sessions with Evangelista for several years, this is the trio’s first public performance.

Like Richard Howell’s Sudden Changes, it’s a conspicuously multi-generational situation “where there’s a lot of shared language,” Evangelista said. “I’m very familiar with their duo and being consulted for the curation of this series. They’re a good fit for representing the experimental free improvisation community. They’re players with a deserved reputation as diehard free improvisers. Combined with a younger Mills-trained musician like myself, I’d like to think it’s a synthesis.”

While Mills and the Center for New Music Audio Technologies (CNMAT) at UC Berkeley have attracted hundreds of adventurous musicians to the East Bay over the years, there’s precious little institutional support for performances. It’s a scene that manifests in storefront spaces, which rarely last for more than a few years. Since the turn of the century, key Oakland venues include 21 Grand, Studio Grand, and for a brief, glorious year, Duende. In Berkeley, Beanbender’s and the Berkeley Arts Festival, a series of downtown rooms that Bonnie Hughes wrangled from developers for use as temporary venues, were essential spaces, while there’s hope that the Starry Plough and Albany’s Ivy Room will once again feature improv-based music in the programmatic mix.  

In Oakland today, the venue options for experimental music are threadbare, with the Temescal Arts Center one of the only pre-pandemic holdouts. Jazz in the Neighborhood is in talks to present a concert series there in April and is looking to help fund some improvements. With one or two more options in addition to the Dresher Ensemble Studio, the scrappy scene can thrive on a shoestring. 

“It doesn’t have to be plush at all, but it’s got to be a space where people feel comfortable to play and want to come and listen,” Guarneri said. “It’s hopped around from place to place over the years. Everyone’s always looking for that storefront.”

Tickets for the West Oakland Concert Series at the Dresher Ensemble Studio in Oakland can be here. Directions to the studio will be provided upon purchase. Proof of vaccination is required.