Oakland’s population might be ebbing, but with its vibrant critical mass of creatives, the city continues to attract artists of all stripes.
Drummer and vibraphonist Dillon Vado and vocalist Amy D both hail from close-knit families in San Jose, where they came of age with many of the same musical mentors. But it wasn’t until they moved to Oakland that they forged a songwriting partnership and launched a quartet with a singularly spacious sound.
Dillon and D, who began her career using her birth name Amy Dabalos, perform Friday at the Sound Room with Oakland-reared drummer Isaac Schwartz and the Czech-born and San Francisco-based five-string bassist Lukas Vesely. To say that the quartet is raring to share its new music would be an understatement.
“For a year or so we’ve been meeting once a week, trying stuff, writing stuff, revisiting ideas,” Vado said on a recent video call with D from his West Oakland studio. “There’s been this burst of creative energy that’s been beautiful. But the outward-facing part has been glacial.”
D was still buzzing from two sold-out shows last month at SFJAZZ Center’s Joe Henderson Lab, where she finally made her pandemic-delayed debut as part of the center’s Hotplate series, which pays tribute to classic jazz albums and the artists who made them. While her band with Vado focuses on their original songs, she was equally at home interpreting American Songbook standards like the Hotplate material from Sarah Vaughan’s intimate 1961 Roulette album, After Hours.
“It was magical, with both shows packed,” D said. “After all this time I was just excited to finally do it.”
A South Bay mainstay for more than a decade, D released her sleekly grooving solo debut CD, Like You, on the women-centric Los Angeles label Unspeakable, just as the pandemic hit. Though informed by her love of jazz, the music reflected a different side of D, a facet polished by her growing Oakland connections.
After her unsuccessful search for a producing partner, trumpeter Geechi Taylor, a frequent bandmate, put her in touch with Michael Aaberg, an Oakland-reared studio wizard best known for his work with R&B, hip hop, and jazz heavyweights such as Lalah Hathaway, Goapele, bassist Derrick Hodge, and The Coup. He and D devised a crisp and cool R&B-laced sound for Like You.
D brings all these influences to bear writing and arranging with Vado, whose family owns and runs The Art Boutiki, a San Jose store, comic book publishing house, and venue that’s an essential creative hub in the South Bay. He moved to Oakland 10 years ago to study at the California Jazz Conservatory, where he came under the sway of master drummer Alan Hall.
Vado marks the start of his life’s East Bay chapter with the rental of his West Oakland practice studio, which has remained his base of operations no matter where he’s rented a room. Over the years he’s lived in various Oakland and San Leandro neighborhoods, “by Mills, by International Boulevard, and currently in West Oakland,” he said.
“The studio has been there the whole time, with my marimba and vibes and the same keyboard. I’ve hosted rehearsals for other bandleaders, taught lessons, written music,” he said. Great things have happened, and it’s all related to the community here and being here physically.”
Many jazz fans got to know Vado as the vibraphonist in Alan Hall’s Ratatet, an electro-acoustic sextet featuring Paul Hanson on bassoon and tenor sax, Jeff Denson on electric and acoustic bass, trombonist John Gove, and pianist/keyboardist Greg Sankovich. As the youngest player in a group stocked with celebrated improvisers, Vado soaked up arranging and composing ideas that he applied in his own music.
Holding down the drum chair in his quintet project Never Weather, Vado released a critically praised debut album Blissonance in January 2020, but the quintet’s trumpeter and altoist promptly left town, leaving the intricately arranged pieces he’d developed for those players in limbo.
When D made the move to Oakland in the fall of 2021 looking to spread her wings, Vado was ready for a new creative adventure. “Dillon was one of the first people I had coffee with,” she recalled.
On a walk around Lake Merritt, they quickly determined that “we should write some songs together,” she said. “It’s unfolded very organically. My friendship with Dillon has been foundational to my settling here and feeling part of the community.”
The collaboration was still in a protean stage when a late-breaking Art Boutiki cancellation last April gave them a chance to test drive some new music. While the interpersonal chemistry is what fuels the group, the unusual instrumentation means the quartet is often solving or avoiding sonic challenges, as the vibraphone and D’s voice share a similar range.
Whatever the challenges, she’s committed to the vibes as “a very spiritual instrument that can reach people like the human voice does,” D said. “In terms of the emotional quality, I think after three years of pandemic, people have a lot of feelings to work through. People need cathartic moments, and that’s something we can get from art, from music.”
In terms of new musical territory, the quartet has also coaxed Vado into taking his piano playing out of his studio. While he’s played and composed on the instrument for years, he’s completely self-taught and hasn’t felt confident enough to perform. But some of the songs with D lend themselves to the piano’s fuller range.
“I do have a lot of baggage about playing piano in public but the vibes only go down to just below middle C. As an accompanist that’s a challenge because Amy’s range is almost identical. With the piano, I can be down here supporting her voice. With the vibes, voice is here and vibes are here,” he said, bringing his hands together so that his fingertips touched. “They have to dance together.”
After Friday’s performance at the Sound Room, the next dance takes place on March 24 at the Art Boutiki.