Vibrant big band jazz.
Electric Squeezebox Orchestra
Vibrant big band jazz.
A swinging 17-piece full big band, the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra specializes in playing exuberant new music written and arranged by its own talented members, who are among the leading jazz artists and composers in the Bay Area. Directed by trumpet virtuoso and SJW faculty member Erik Jekabson, the ESO swings, rocks, and blows in the tradition of the great modern bands such as the Village Vanguard Orchestra, Jazz At Lincoln Center, and the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Creativity never sounded so good!
Erik Jekabson, trumpet
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George & Luisa Miler
When trumpeter Erik Jekabson started a regular big band session at the Musicians Union building in San Francisco with trombonist Jeanne Geiger a few years ago, he had no plans or ambitions of seeking out any gigs. But union president David Schoenbrun took note of the combo’s adventurous spirit, and when New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars accordionist Glenn Hartman mentioned he was looking for a house big band for the new North Beach venue Doc’s Lab, Schoenbrun mentioned Jekabson. Thus was born the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra, which has parlayed a coveted two-year-and-running Sunday night gig into national recognition with the release of 2015’s Cheap Rent (OA2 Records).
“Glenn and I knew each other a little from New Orleans,” says the Berkeley-raised Jekabson, who spent years in Louisiana and New York City before settling in El Cerrito. “It’s really a dream gig that fell into my lap. The people at Doc’s Lab are amazing and super supportive. I could do no less than push it as hard as I could. It’s taking up a lot of time, but I get to hear a lot of my music played by some fantastic musicians, which is pretty priceless.”
The 17-piece group recorded its second album at Fantasy Studios a few months ago, and roars back into action tonight with its Stanford debut after a summer hiatus from its perch at Doc’s Lab. When he’s not writing music for Squeezebox or one of his small-group projects, Jekabson can be found at the California Jazz Conservatory in downtown Berkeley, where he directs the Jazzschool Young Musicians Program.
It’s a mark of his colleague’s deep and abiding esteem for Jekabson that he’s attracted such a large and deep pool of talent. More than five dozen musicians have participated in the orchestra since its inception, and its regular cast includes heavyweights like reed players Sheldon Brown, Larry De La Cruz, Mike Zilber, Raffi Garabedian, and Charlie Gurke, trumpeters Dave Scott and Doug Morton, trombonists Rob Ewing, Danny Lubin-Laden, Patrick Malabuyo, and Richard Lee. The locomotive rhythm section features pianist Dan Zemelman, guitarist Jordan Samuels, drummer Jeff Marrs, and the veteran bassist Peter Barshay, a commanding accompanist who’s toured internationally with jazz luminaries such as Lou Donaldson, Johnny Griffin, Lew Tabackin, and Joe Chambers.
Many of the players are drawn by the opportunity to write for a strong ensemble with a weekly gig. Ewing, who recently released the first album by Disappear Incompletely, his jazz ensemble dedicated to the music of Radiohead, is a founding member of Squeezebox. He’s contributed several pieces to the band’s book, like an arrangement of Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can” that he wrote as tribute to the New Orleans legend shortly after his death.
“Erik’s leadership is a big part of why I wanted to get involved,” says Ewing, who’s a California Jazz Conservatory colleague of Jekabson’s as director of the Jazzschool Community Music School. “He’s an amazing musician. For any band, having the experience of working regularly is invaluable, especially if the group is focused on more complex original music. This is a chance to really develop and live in the music.”
Jekabson keeps things interesting at Doc’s Lab by inviting guest stars like vocalists Madeline Eastman and Kenny Washington, and percussionist John Santos (who’s featured on Jekabson’s acclaimed 2014 album Live at the Hillside Club). For tonight’s show, the band will be joined by several illustrious Workshop faculty members. If the band worked only as a thriving sonic laboratory that would be impressive enough. But Jekabson has taken another step to provide a forum for Bay Area composers by making inexpensive charts online via the band’s website along with a recording. From middle schools and college combos to rehearsal bands like the Electric Squeezebox’s earlier incarnation, finding new and interesting music to play is often a challenge.
“Darren Johnston has written some great stuff,” Jekabson says. “Doug Morton has written a ton. If you need an arrangement, he’ll whip something out. And Mike Zilber has got such a strong and unique compositional voice. It’s another way to get the music of Bay Area composers out there into the national scene.”
Jekabson is part of a formidable lineage of Berkeley High trumpeters that includes predecessors Steve Bernstein and Peck Allmond and later alumni Jonathan Finlayson and Ambrose Akinmusire. After graduating from Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1994, he moved to New Orleans, where he immersed himself in several facets of the city’s vibrant musical culture. He co-led the New World Funk Ensemble, and led his own jazz combos in high profile venues like Snug Harbor. He also established an international presence, touring in France with the great French organist Eddy Louiss.
After his four-year Crescent City sojourn Jekabson moved to Brooklyn in 1998 and continued to pursue a diverse array of musical experiences. He performed with the Illinois Jacquet Big Band, singer/songwriter Amy Kohn, and Justin Mullen’s Delphian Jazz Orchestra. He played in the off-Broadway show The Jazz Singer and spent a year on the road with singer/songwriter John Mayer. He also released his debut recording, 2002’s Intersection (Fresh Sound/New Talent), a session featuring guitarist Ben Monder, saxophonists John Ellis and Matt Otto, bassist Alexis Cuadrado, and drummer Mark Ferber. Since returning to the Bay Area in 2003 for a masters program at the San Francisco Conservatory, he’s become an invaluable creative catalyst on the bandstand and in the classroom.