Attempting to capture the dizzying, mutable and ever volatile reality of California is not a task for the faint of heart, but no one's ever accused Todd Sickafoose of lacking fortitude. As a bassist, improviser and bandleader, he's a dependably intrepid artist, whether he's playing muscular lines with Ani DiFranco, blithely ignoring stylistic conventions with Andrew Bird, or laying down slinky grooves with Tiny Resistors, his primary vehicle as composer.
On Friday Sickafoose premieres his Chamber Music America–commissioned piece Bear Proof at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage, an hour-long work for an expanded, talent-laden version of his band. Featuring guitarist Adam Levy, violinist Jenny Scheinman, pianist Erik Deutsch, drummer Allison Miller, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, and accordionist Rob Reich, it's a conspicuously bi-coastal ensemble though most of the players share intimate Golden State ties. (Sickafoose previews the music Thursday at 10pm on Derk Richardson's KPFA show The Hear and Now).
The Danville-raised bassist first gained attention on the Bay Area scene during the 1990's Internet bubble as an invaluable collaborator with artists like Scheinman, drummer Scott Amendola, singer/songwriter Noe Venable, and Bear Proof reflects his abiding fascination with the way that California has been shaped and reshaped by a series of radical booms and busts. He's not interested in writing programmatic themes so much as evoking California's epochal shifts dating back to the Gold Rush, through sly changes of meter and unexpected transitions.
"I think the cool thing about instrumental music is that you can write about things you can't describe in other ways," Sickafoose says from his home in Oakland. "Crazy things happen everywhere, but this was a pretty spectacular thing that happened in San Francisco, the rush of people who came and made this place. There's a feeling that informs what this place is, and it's a big reason why it's different than the East Coast."
It would take an eight-dimensional Venn diagram to capture the manifold interlocking musical relationships that bind Tiny Resistors together. For starters, Sickafoose anchors Scheinman's powerhouse quartet Mischief & Mayhem with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Jim Black. He's the sparkplug of Allison Miller's Boom Tic Boom, and produced the formidable quartet's latest album No Morphine No Lilies. And he anchors the Rob Reich Trio, a more recent musical development.
Reich recalls hearing about the bassist a few years ago after Sickafoose produced Rupa and the April Fishes' latest album Build "and Rupa was raving about him," says Reich, who also performs in the Gypsy jazz combo Gaucho, which celebrates the release of the new album Thinking of You at Yoshi's on April 17. "The first time I played with him was with Rupa in a trio at the Red Poppy Art House doing her music, and was blown away by how good and strong his grooves were. It's rare to find such a strong, rhythmic player who's also a super sweet and mellow guy."
One reason that Sickafoose attracts so many singular musicians is that he's honed an Ellingtonian aesthetic. No matter what components he assembles for Tiny Resistors, the music is unmistakably his own, but he designs it with specific musicians in mind. While some sections of Bear Proof are intricately arranged and other parts are fully notated, the music depends upon the particular instrumental voices at his disposal.
"As a kid when they teach you build a fire that you can light with one match, you build it with all this space so the oxygen can come in," Sickafoose says. "I want to do the same thing with music, build it with all this space so you can invite everyone's personalities in, and then throw in that match. This theme is all about flow and transition. There's silence, musical silence, but every part flows into the next."
While Sickafoose returned to the East Bay from Brooklyn about three years ago after nearly a decade on the East Coast, Friday's gig is sort of a homecoming party. Between the birth of his first child and extensive studio commitments producing or mixing albums by artists like DiFranco, Kneebody, Erin McKeown, and Anaïs Mitchell, he kept a low profile at first. Since Duende opened a year ago in Oakland's burgeoning Uptown district he's been a regular presence in an array of contexts, most recently a sensational encounter between reed masters Marty Ehrlich and Ben Goldberg last week.
As is so often the case, the time spent away from home provided a new perspective on his identity as a Californian. He greatly expanded his web of musical connections in New York, a place he also calls home now, but many of his closest musical collaborators were artists he came up with on the Bay Area scene, like Jenny Scheinman (who's back in Humboldt, where she grew up, after more than a decade in Brooklyn).
"That stuff can be meaningless, but it can mean everything," Sickafoose says. "It's the reason behind so many connections between people. I remember the first time Jenny came back after she had been hustling in New York and we were approaching Arcata. She was getting quieter and quieter and finally said stop the car. She just run into the redwoods and disappeared into the trees for 15 minutes, then came back covered with mud and a huge smile on her face."
Todd Sickafoose's Tiny Resistors present Bear Proof, Friday, April 11 at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit thefreight.org.