Electric Squeezebox Orchestra

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MUSIC REVIEW 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."





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