"Bay Area's Best Jazz Albums of 2019" by Andrew Gilbert
Electric Squeezebox Orchestra, “Matter Is” (doubleOone): Already overloaded with talent, the 17-piece ESO devotes its third album to showcasing the diverse roster of vocalists who’ve performed with the ensemble, including poet/percussionist Avotcja, Kenny Washington, Kalil Wilson, Sandy Cressman and Madeline Eastman, who are all outfitted with consistently thoughtful arrangements by ESO members.
Review by Matthew Collar, Allmusic Guide
The third album from San Francisco trumpeter Erik Jekabson's Electric Squeezebox Orchestra, 2019's Matter Is, finds the adventurous big band performing an eclectic, deeply sophisticated set of songs with voices. On his own, Jekabson works as a university professor and leads a handful of groups that have touched upon straight-ahead jazz, post-bop, classical, fusion, and Latin traditions. He brings all of this to bear on Matter Is. These are richly attenuated large group compositions borne out of Jekabson and Electric Squeezebox Orchestra's five-year residency at Doc's Lab in San Francisco and the California Jazz Conservatory based in Berkley. The voices showcased here alongside the ensemble are poet Avotcja and singers Sandy Cressman, Madeline Eastman, Kenny Washington, and Kalil Wilson. Avotcja opens the album with the expansive title track which features her commanding spoken word poetry framed by a warm chordal arrangement that brings to mind Stan Kenton. She also adds literate flavor to the swinging, Thad Jones-esque hard bopper "Soundly Metaphysical (Decision)," and pays vibrant homage to singer Betty Carter on "Who's That Lady?." Jekabson then showcases Kalil Wilson's resonant tenor croon on the singer's own elegiac "The Wind," and puts the spotlight on Kenny Washington with a swinging, scat-infused reading of "Days of Wine and Roses." Shifting gears, Sandy Cressman offers a vibrant boss nova number "Como Eu Quero Cantar (I Just Want to Sing)" that she sings in Portuguese. Similarly engaging is Madeline Eastman's instrumental-like rendition of "One Finger Snap/Love for Sale," a mash-up of the Herbie Hancock and Cole Porter songs which also features dynamic solo turns by Jekabson and tenor saxophonist Mike Zilber. As with much of Jekabson's work with the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra, Matter Is gives voice to the culturally diverse and artistically cross-pollinated Bay Area where it originated.
by Thom Yurek, AllMusic Guide
The follow up to Electric Squeezebox Orchestra's 2015 debut, the wildly diverse yet always swinging Cheap Rent is, if possible, even more ambitious than its predecessor. The 17-piece big band led by trumpeter/album producer Erik Jekabson cut The Falling Dream over several days at the legendary Fantasy studios. Of its ten tracks, nine were written by members. The lone cover is a daring, and imaginative read of McCoy Tyner's "Señor Carlos" that delivers expansive horn harmonies and knotty post-bop alongside classic progressive jazz that recalls the innovations of the Clarke Boland Big Band entrenched in deep Latin grooves and a fine guitar break by guitarist Jordan Samuels. The tune is a centerpiece as Latin jazz informs the entire proceeding by degrees -- which is not to say it's a Latin jazz album. It's one of three tunes to feature percussionist John Santos, whose interaction with drummer David Flores -- one of three who alternate here -- is as soulful as it is grooving, melding the syncopation of progressive jazz and driving salsa. "Gualala" is one of three Jekabson tunes. It kicks off with a contrapuntal exchange between guitar, piano, and flute, offering a West African-esque folk melody in ballad form. When the rest of the horns enter, however, the tempos may not shift a whole lot, but the cut gels into a colorful stretching of the midtempo ballad as Afro-Latin polyrhythms weave between the emboldened brass and reeds. Trumpeter Darren Johnson's title track cleverly threads post- and hard bop, progressive swing, and modal and Latin jazz with fine trumpet and tenor saxophone solos into a fine quilt of sound. The middle section offers a dazzling display of Electric Squeezebox Orchestra's tight timing and agility. "Bossa Novato" by trumpeter Doug Morton is nearly Ellingtonian in its elegance, swing, and humor, all underscored by lithe Brazilian rhythms. "Jungle Rumble," by Jekabson, also features Santos. The percussionist spends the first minute-and-a-half soloing before the bleat of the brass and winds enter on a suspenseful note; they commence an interplay between individual soloists and instrument sections. Jekabson's bluesy solo adds another dimension as he interacts first with the saxophones then the entire horn section while Santos, Flores' drum kit, and Dan Zemelman's piano play through and under their margins. Honking tenor solos, loopy yet seamless humorous and sparkling interludes, layers of funky breaks, and Latin grooves --along with a killer bass solo by Tommy Folen -- make the track a virtual travelog of modern jazz at its most imaginative. With Latin jazz acting as the Muse for Electric Squeezebox Orchestra on The Falling Dream, the band go deeper and wider than on their debut. Over the last three years, this large group -- who play regular residencies in the Bay area -- has become a many-headed beast ready to take the jazz world by storm. All killer, no filler.
by Yoshi Kato, Downbeat Magazine
* * * *1/2 stars! (4 and a half stars)
Humor and camaraderie characterize the thoroughly enjoyable debut from this communal big band with an ongoing Sunday residency at a stylish and comfortable subterranean venue in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood.
Led by trumpeter Erik Jekabson, the ESO is an impressively democratic group. On the album, 15 0f the 23 members have solos, and five contribute original compositions. Cheap Rent opens with a bright-sounding arrangement of Wayne Shorter's "ESP," and the repertoire of Shorter's longtime comrade Herbie Hancock is also visited in the form of a version of "People Music" that maintains the electric cool of the original 1976 recording.
The title track, written by trumpeter Darren Johnston, could be interpreted as an ironic nod to the Bay Area's skyrocketing housing market. Alto saxophonist Sheldon Brown's "Bolenge Shuffle" could energize the dance floor of many a wedding reception. And Garland's "Gap Toothed Grin" brings a welcomed second-line spirit to the bandstand.
by Andrew Gilbert, San Jose Mercury News
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 about 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 that 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 yearlong Sunday night gig into national recognition with the August release of the album "Cheap Rent" (OA2 Records).
"Glenn and I knew each other a little from New Orleans," says 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," he adds. "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 ... priceless."
It's a mark of his colleagues' deep and abiding esteem that the trumpeter has been able to attract such a large and deep pool of talent. More than five dozen musicians have participated in the orchestra since its inception, and its regular plays include heavyweights such as saxophonists Sheldon Brown, Larry De La Cruz, Mike Zilber and Kasey Knudsen. Many of the players are drawn by the opportunity to write for a strong ensemble with a weekly gig.
Trombonist Rob Ewing, who just released the first album by Disappear Incompletely, his jazz ensemble dedicated to the music of Radiohead, is a founding member of Electric Squeezebox.
At a recent Doc's Lab gig, Ewing brought in an arrangement of Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can," as a tribute to the late New Orleans legend.
"Erik's leadership is a big part of why I wanted to get involved," says Ewing, who is also 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 ... complex original music. This is a chance to really develop and live in the music."
Jekabson keeps things interesting by inviting guest stars such as vocalists Madeline Eastman and Kenny Washington to Doc's Lab, which occupies sacred nightclub ground in the basement that once housed the Purple Onion.
For Monday's Freight gig, the group will be joined by drummer David Flores and percussion great John Santos (who was featured on Jekabson's acclaimed 2014 album "Live at the Hillside Club").
"I didn't feel shy about asking John, because he's the kind of guy who's doing it for the love of the musical community," Jekabson says. "He's not thinking about how famous he is. And a lot of tunes lend themselves to adding percussion. With John and David, the pocket is phenomenal, and our bassist, Tommy Folen, locks right in with them."
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 at the band's website, together along with a recording.
From middle schools and college combos to rehearsal bands such as 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 ... a strong and unique compositional voice. It's another way to get the music of Bay Area composers out there into the national scene."
by George W. Harris, Jazz Weekly
RINGER OF THE WEEK Here's a band that avoids the pitfalls of most big band recordings. Modern stuff either sounds like a Gil Evans wanna-be or a musical version of a Jackson Pollock painting. Here, you've got a nice sized big band lead by trumpeter Erik Jekabson, and he walks the tightrope of clever sounds and harmonies as well as palpable rhythms on this highly successful album. The horn sections do wonders with Miles Davis' "ESP" as the rhythm tam of Grant evin/p, Eric Garland/dr, Tommy Folen/b and Jordan Samuels/g glide like a small combo under Doug Morton's trumpet and Michael Zilber's husky tenor." A smoking take of Herbie Hancock's "People Music" has some funky grooves laid down bythe rhythm, as well as hip horns and an all out bravado solo by Zilber. Who IS this guy?!? A militaristy vibe on "Gap Toothed Grin" makes a sharp turn into swing along with sizzling trumpet solos by Jekabson and Darren Johnston, while the softer side if the band is felt on the feathery "It's Gonna Be Allright" where Colin Hogan's piano goes lovingly lounge lizard.
The charts here are an absolute hoot. There's more shifting on "Bolenge Shuffle" that Little Egypt's hips, and the band goes from wah wah murky to bright and tight on "Electric Squeezebox." The reeds show their allegiance to traditional swing on"Compus Mentis" just before they shift gears between jivey cool and snappy bebop, with solos by Sheldon Brown/as and Patrick Malabuyo/tb riding the bouncy road. This band is a perfect mix of heart, soul and feet. Get ready for some fun!
by Jack Bowers, All About Jazz
Yes, the name is intriguing - but what should one expect musically from the San Francisco-based Electric Squeezebox Orchestra? Bits and pieces of a number of disparate elements, really, from straight-ahead contemporary motifs to shuffle beats and old-line swing, from down-home New Orleans rhythms to throwback grooves from the '70s and even a seductive ballad. What matters most is that every number is capably performed by an ensemble comprised of some of the more seasoned sidemen (and one woman) the Bay Area has to offer.
Trumpeter Erik Jekabson, the ESO's de facto leader, wrote the ballad, "It's Gonna Be Allright" (on which he also solos), as well as the evocative "Electric Squeezebox" and New Orleans-style "Gap Toothed Grin," which is a pleasure from start to finish. Jekabson, fellow trumpeter Darren Johnston and drummer Eric Garland are the happy-go-lucky soloists on "Grin," spreading sunlight and cheer while the band cooks up a Cajun-flavored banquet behind them. Wayne Shorter is represented by the fleet, boppish opener, "ESP," Herbie Hancock by "People Music," singer Mel Torme by "Chataigne Grilles" whose middle section reprises his greatest hit, "The Christmas Song." Johnston composed the propulsive title selection, tenor Doug Morton "Compus Mentis," alto Sheldon Brown "Bolenge Shuffle," baritone Charlie Gurke "Trotsky," the upbeat and swinging finale on which he solos brightly, as do Garland, pianist Grant Levin, trombonist Rob Ewing and bassist Tommy Folen.
If the EJO's goal is disciplined variety, it certainly succeeds, laying bare an affinity for a wide range of music, all of which it approaches with awareness and respect. Soloists adapt to the material, while the ensemble strikes the proper balance between articulation and enthusiasm. Little wonder the orchestra has landed a regular Sunday night gig and built a loyal fan base at Doc's Lab in the city's North Beach neighborhood. Cheap Rent marks a splendid debut, one that betokens great promise for enterprises yet to come.
by Chris Spector, Midwest Record
Damn that economy of scale. It took a Kickstarter campaign to get this record into existence. How are they going to afford to leave their confines of Frisco and go on the road when there's a jillion players in this big band and all of them are required to add their own special sauce? Listeners in North Beach don't know how good they have it that they can just saunter down to the local watering hole once a week and revel in this contemporary big band goodness by a crew that knows how to chart their own courses and bring the funk, swing and everything else. Never playing by the numbers, this crew kicks it out like nobodies business. If this isn't big band the way you like it, gets your ears checks. Killer stuff,
by Dave Sumner, Bird is the Worm
Plenty of vibrancy to the huge sound generated by Erik Jekabson's big band, but it's the way the music flows so effortlessly that makes this a winning album. And considering how most of the ensemble consists of wind instruments, this weightless quality becomes necessarily important. The talent of the Bay Area scene is nicely represented on this session. The brief diversion taken by a rendition of Herbie Hancock's groove-oriented "People Music" is especially delightful, both in the arrangement and how it provides an alternate facet of the group's range of expression without shattering the album's coherency. Fun music.
by Dave Rogers, WTJU - Richmond
This is a seventeen piece big band based in San Francisco whose members wrote seven of the ten songs on offer and created arrangements for the covers, composed by such talents as Wayne Shorter, Mel Torme and Herbie Hancock. The band features as many as five trumpet players, including Erik Jekabson, Darren Johnston, Doug Morton, Henry Hung, Dave Scoot and Ian Carey; six saxes, including Sheldon Brown and Kasey Knudsen (alto), Michael Wilber, Marcus Stephens, and Teddy Raven (tenor), and Charlie Burke (bari); five trombones, including Rob Ewing, Mitch Butler, Danny Lubin-Laden, Patrick Malabuyo, and Richard Lee; with Grant Levin or Colin Hogan (piano), Jordan Samuels (guitar), Tommy Folen (bass), and Eric Garland or Alan Hall (drums). They play well individually and as an ensemble throughout this debut disc.
by Hobart Taylor, KUCI, Irvine, CA
From San Francisco, this big band is very hip and contemporary, just ahead of the beat. When you think "here are the same old moves," harmonies shift, intonation varies and yet none of the swing is lost.
by Jack Bowers, Allaboutjazz.com
No, the San Francisco-based Electric Squeezebox Orchestra does not come with accordions attached. It does, however, come with a well-developed eye for harmony and rhythm, an inflexible group dynamic and a number of perceptive soloists, all of which serve to make the ensemble's second album, The Falling Dream,a pleasure to hear.
The orchestra's nominal leader is trumpeter Erik Jekabson who wrote three of the album's tasteful numbers, the undulating "Guala," circuitous "November" and hard-hitting finale, "Jungle Rumble" (the last two of which are also the longest tracks, each one running for more than eleven minutes). Baritone Charlie Gurke authored a brace of charmers ("The Captain," "A.N.I.F") while trumpeter Darren Johnston composed the lively, brass-accented title selection on which he solos smartly with tenor Michael Zilber. Zilber wrote the psalm-like "St. Paul," which follows (and calls to mind Johnny Mandel's classic "Emily" as it showcases Larry Delacruz's burnished alto saxophone). Yet another trumpeter, Doug Morton, penned the handsome "Bossa Novato" and arranged McCoy Tyner's strapping "Senor Carlos."
Delacruz solos again (with trumpeter Ian Carey) on "Novato" (on which percussionist John Santos accentuates the rhythm, as he does on "The Captain" and "Jungle Rumble"), trombonist Rob Ewing, trumpeter Henry Hung and drummer Hamir Atwal on Jordan Samuels' good-natured "Wicked." Gurke, as one might expect, is out front (with pianist Dan Zemelman) on the rhythmic "A.N.I.F" and with Santos, trombonist Danny Lubin-Laden and alto Sheldon Brown on "The Captain." Brown (flute) has center stage to himself on "Gualala." A new set of soloists shines on "Jungle Rumble," led by trumpeter Johnston and including tenor Marcus Stephens and bassist Tommy Folen. While the soloists are one and all engaging, it is the orchestra as a whole that most often entices the ear and carries the day.