Alive! in Berkeley: All-women jazz combo comes to town

By Andrew Gilbert, Berkeleyside

Alive with Barbara Borden

Alive! mark their 40th anniversary with a concert at the Freight & Salvage

Alive! wasn’t the first top-flight all-women combo in jazz. Going back to at least the 1940s, when the International Sweethearts of Rhythm earned the respect of their male peers and discerning audiences, excellent female musicians have come together to swing and improvise. But the women in Alive!, who mark the 40th anniversary of the band’s founding with a reunion concert Sunday at Freight & Salvage, boldly trod onto new territory when they came together in the mid-1970s.

Featuring vocalist Rhiannon, percussionist Carolyn Brandy, bassist/cellist Susanne DiVincenza, drummer Barbara Borden and the late pianist Janet Small (who passed away in 2010), Alive! captured jazz’s zeitgeist with a repertoire focusing on original compositions. Inspired by Brandy’s rapidly accelerating passion for Afro-Cuban rituals and rhythms, the band incorporated Cuban grooves at a time when more jazz musicians were exploring Caribbean cultural currents. The inimitable Tammy Hall, who can often be found accompanying the region’s best jazz singers, is the band’s new pianist.

“We really had a big interest in doing our own material,” says Brandy, who has lived in San Leandro for the past two decades. “That was a strong point. Janet Small was an excellent writer. I wrote quite a few songs as well. We were very interested in being accepted as a jazz ensemble, so did jazz standards too. We rehearsed a lot and were really committed to each other, something that you don’t find that much these days. We still cover a lot of ground. For this gig we’ll be doing a lot of originals, Stevie Wonder’s ‘The Secret Life of Plants,’ some blues, some gospel, some out tunes, and some bebop, like ‘Donna Lee.’”

The 40th anniversary gigs came together because Alive! is performing at the last Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which is shutting down after this August’s event. In many ways Alive! grew out of the women’s music movement of the 1970s, as Rhiannon attended the first MWMF in 1976 and came back to the Bay Area determined to find other women to play with. She and Brandy first performed together with Oakland-raised pianist Michelle Rosewoman (who went on to become a major force in New York).

“We did that as a one-off,” Brandy recalls. “We called ourselves the Rubberbands because we had such disparate musical influences.”

A little while later, Rhiannon and Brandy met DiVincenza at a workshop that Rosewoman was conducting at the Haight Ashbury Music Center. She played cello at the time, and they decided to get together to jam. They had so much fun that they kept meeting, and within a few months landed a gig at the Full Moon Coffeehouse, a vital feminist outpost in San Francisco.

“We had six songs on that first gig, and did a whole evening with them,” Brandy says. “It was really a situation of being in the right place at the right time.”

After playing a few festivals devoted to women musicians, the trio started touring regularly, spending about half of each year on the road. By 1978, they added Small and Borden, and that lineup remained constant until Brandy decided to stop touring in 1982. They’ve reunited several times over the years, but have mostly concentrated on their thriving solo careers.

Rhiannon collaborated widely with Bobby McFerrin and maintains an international teaching schedule. Borden is a creative catalyst whose career was explored in David L. Brown’s 2012 documentary Keeper of the Beat: A Woman’s Journey Into the Heart of Drumming. And Brandy embarked on a spiritual odyssey, becoming one of the first women to ever master the bata drum, a sacred instrument in the Yoruban-derived Afro-Cuban religion of Santería.

The weekend at the Freight is essentially devoted to groundbreaking women musicians, as Saturday’s show brings together multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Barbara Higbie and singer Teresa Trull, who will also be performing together at the final Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. They’ll be joined at the Freight by special guests Adrienne Torf on piano and Seattle singer, songwriter and comedian Lisa Koch. Not surprisingly, Higbie’s path has crossed often over the years with the women of Alive!, most recently in the summer of 2013 at the Fiesta Del Fuego in Santiago de Cuba.

“She’s so talented and plays so many instruments,” says Brandy says, who can always be found in the most interesting musical settings. On Sunday afternoon she’s performing with Berkeley drummer/composer Anthony Brown’s Grammy-nominated Asian American Orchestra at the Peace Pagoda in San Francisco’s Japantown for the premiere of 1945: A Year of Infamy. Brown created the extended work to mark the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he’s also presenting it at the August 6th at the SF Asian Art Museum, and September 6th at the Yerba Buena Garden Festival.

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.