With Mouth Pops and Heel Clicks, Keith Terry Makes His Body an Instrument

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Keith Terry celebrates his 70th birthday Nov. 22 at Freight & Salvage with some of his closest musical compatriots.  (Gudmundur Vigfusson)

Keith Terry knows all about the binding power of rhythm. Whether he’s seated behind a drum kit or using his entire body as a percussion section, the Oakland musician has spent much of his life bringing together ensembles designed to usher already singular musicians into unfamiliar sonic terrain.

His work as a primary conceptualist behind the international body music movement has taken place mostly outside the U.S. for the past decade due to the State Department’s restrictive visa policies for international artists. But he’s continued to tap into the Bay Area’s deep talent pool. Celebrating his 70th birthday at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on Nov. 22, Terry performs with the four overlapping ensembles that he’s primarily working with these days, including Corposonic, a long-running trio featuring Terry on body music, beatboxer Steve Hogan and Bryan Dyer on bass vocals. They’ll be joined by special guests Rhonda Benin on vocals and Jackeline Rago on four-string Venezuelan cuatro.

Laying down intricate rhythmic skeins built around Terry’s expansive body music vocabulary, Corposonic showcases his highly physical practice, employing heel clicks, chest thumps, foot stomps, mouth pops and thigh slaps. “It’s such an unusual trio that it sounds like a funny vehicle for backing up guest artists, but it’s a wonderful, quirky thing,” Terry said.

Corposonic has spent many years working out how to play together, but the recently minted trio Outdoor Cats is still very much a work in progress. Featuring Terry on drums, Jazz Mafia tuba player Jonathan Seiberlich and trombonist Jeff Cressman, who toured the world with Santana from 2000–2016, the group came together during the pandemic while playing driveway sessions.

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All three players contribute original tunes, but they’ve also honed some twisted covers, like a Brazilian choro that Cressman transcribed and a version of George and Ira Gershwin’s standard “’S Wonderful,” “a real a wild ride in seven that goes through lots of variations,” Terry said. “It’s a very adventurous, fun trio and I’m just loving those two low-end brass instruments. They’re such masterful players, and with the harmonics it sounds like more than two horns. Everybody improvises really well, and we go in lots of different directions.”

The Freight concert also features the old-time-music-inspired Evie Ladin Band, a three-piece combo with Ladin on lead vocals, banjo, guitar and body music, Terry on percussion and vocals and Erik Pearson on guitar, banjo and vocals. An excellent clog dancer, Ladin sometimes engages Terry, her musical and connubial partner, in dance routines that combine percussive exuberance and broad physical comedy.

A portrait of the five-piece band Free Dive.
Free Dive. (Edie Ladin)

The fourth group on the program is the quintet Free Dive with Terry on drums, Steve Hogan on bass and beatbox, Bryan Dyer and Cecilia Engelhart on vocals and percussion, and trombonist Jeff Cressman. The Freight concert marks the release of Free Dive’s eponymous new album, a project that focuses on original compositions while also reimagining iconic tunes by Thelonious Monk (“I Mean You”), Lennon and McCartney (“Dear Prudence”) and Jobim (“Águas de Março”).

Recorded by during the pandemic by Cressman (who’s also a respected sound engineer) and released on Terry’s Crosspulse Media, the album investigates the unusual textural and harmonic possibilities of the instrumentation. Like Corposonic, which includes three of the same musicians, “there are no chordal instruments,” said Cressman.

“I don’t know if that was by happenstance, because we’ve got great chemistry, or by design,” he explained. “Everyone’s got their individual melodic voice, and the freedom to explore different tonalities, not being married to a chordal center at any moment. Conversely, we do make the harmony happen if we’re going to come together to make a big harmonic statement.”

What unites all four groups is the singular nature of Terry’s skillset, which he’s acquired via widely varied musical travels. The Texas native moved to Berkeley in the mid-1970s to study at the Center for World Music. A founder of the Jazz Tap Ensemble in Los Angeles, where Terry spent five years on faculty at UCLA, he began developing his hybrid approach to body percussion and dance with the encouragement of legendary tap dancers like Honi Coles.

A master of collaboration, he’s teamed up with a wide array of artists and organizations over the years, including Balinese dance and music group Gamelan Sekar Jaya, Turtle Island String Quartet, NEA Jazz Master Bobby McFerrin and San Jose Taiko. But his most profound contribution, the kind of innovation that garners MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships, was bringing together far-flung folkloric traditions and contemporary musical idioms under the umbrella of “body music.”

Launched in 2008 and produced by Crosspulse, the nonprofit educational organization and ensemble that Terry runs with Ladin, the International Body Music Festival featured a global array of artists playing music that emanates solely from the human form. First held in locations around the Bay Area but quickly moving overseas, the festivals brought together the propulsive chants of Indonesian kecak, the passionate palmas of flamenco, the rhythmic thigh slapping of African American hambone and the percussive footwork of Veracruz’s zapateado.

“A lot of these groups were sought out by Keith, and they had very little idea that there were other body-only bands out there,” said Steve Hogan. “With the first one in San Francisco and then Brazil shortly after there was so much magic, this creative explosion of people interacting with others doing these esoteric art forms. I’d never seen anything like that before, artists from all around the world forging these connections that happened so quickly and deeply.”

Numerous collaborations born out the festivals have flowered, but U.S. audiences won’t have opportunities to witness these encounters first-hand for the foreseeable future. After 2013, Terry and his team decided it was too difficult contending with confounding U.S. State Department bureaucracy. When the pandemic hit, International Body Music Festivals were slated for Beijing and Rome, but they were both postponed. The Rome festival is now happening in August 2022.

“It’s still really growing. But the last couple of years as I’ve become older, I’ve been realizing my limitations,” said Terry. “I used to really see the whole layout, what needed to happen when over a year and a half. I feel those powers are leaving me. There are starting to be other festivals planned in other parts of the world, and I’m excited it’s continuing whether it’s the International Body Music Festival or others. It’s kind of phenomenal what’s happened these past 15 years.”

Letting go of the heavy lifting required for international events, Terry is cultivating connections closer to home. Judging by Monday’s program at the Freight, there’s no shortage of untrod musical ground ripe for his rhythmic investigation.

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Celebrate 70 Orbits with Keith Terry and Friends takes place at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley on Nov. 22.