SF Symphony’s SoundBox Embarks with Quentin Baxter’s Gullah Sound

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Quentin Baxter is best known for his work with Ranky Tanky, the band that blends West African Gullah rhythms from his native South Carolina with jazz and other musics of the African diaspora. The program he curated for San Francisco’s SoundBox reflects these influences. (Reese Moore Photography)

Quentin Baxter didn’t need a pandemic lockdown to appreciate the riches of his hometown. The drummer and producer has earned a Grammy Award and international renown as a founding member of Ranky Tanky, the band that translates South Carolina’s West African Gullah music from sacred to secular settings. Enmeshed in Charleston’s vibrant cultural scene, he’s bringing an array of the city’s sights and sounds to the Bay Area with “Embarkation,” a program that marks the live return of San Francisco Symphony’s experimental SoundBox series Dec. 17-18.

“I never took performance for granted, but, oh my God, I want to play now,” says Baxter. “I want to show people what’s beautiful about Charleston. You grow up and think there’s nothing’s beautiful about home, and then you travel the world and realize it’s actually not like anywhere else.”

After a season of virtual shows, Baxter is reactivating Davies Symphony Hall’s once-reviled backstage rehearsal space for SoundBox’s eighth season of experimental late-night programming. SoundBox provides a living canvas for curatorial play. The space is outfitted with a Meyer Constellation sound system, which creates immersive and interactive acoustics via 28 microphones and 85 loudspeakers.

“It’s an opportunity for a visiting curator to put their musical mark on a program,” says Phillippa Cole, the Symphony’s senior director of artistic planning. “It’s a showcase for our musicians to be seen in a different light than they are on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall. It’s a place where we don’t have to stick to any pre-conceived musical rules, and it’s a way to invite our audiences to hear and experience music, both old and new, in a different way.”

Following “Embarkation,” next year’s guest curators include Chinese British composer and conductor Jamie Man (Jan. 14-15); violinist Pekka Kuusisto in tandem with Swedish composer and music software developer Jesper Nordin (Feb. 25-26); and American composer and multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey (March 25-26). The multifaceted lineup builds on SoundBox’s reputation as a singular outpost on the classical music spectrum.

Orchestra musicians perform with a background of elaborate, colorful video projections.
Michael Tilson Thomas conducting at SoundBox. (Stefan Cohen)

Baxter connected with the SoundBox series through his close friend Scott Pingel, the San Francisco Symphony’s  principal bassist. They met when Pingel moved to South Carolina to take over the principal bass chair with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, and the ensemble needed a drummer for a concert with the great Puerto Rican jazz flutist Néstor Torres.

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“He was playing electric bass up front and I said, ‘We’ve got to talk,’” Baxter recalls. “Scott is an equally amazing jazz bassist and he immediately started playing jazz performances around town. We have a lot of the same influences, and our work ethic aligned. He’s passionate about the music, and he’s one of my best friends. When he auditioned for San Francisco Symphony I flew in to check out his performance.”

Working with lighting designer Luke Kritzeck, videographer Adam Larsen, Symphony musicians and conductor Edwin Outwater, Baxter designed an immersive program imbued with infectious grooves that evoke the lush, verdant landscapes of his hometown. Inspired by some of Charleston’s leading artists and poets, “Embarkation” opens with Baxter’s extended piece “Art Moves Jazz” arranged by Rodney Jordan. It’s an attempt to capture the dynamic of an artist influenced by his world travels but rooted in a specific locale.

“You want to be in a position to represent a place but have experiences elsewhere, in what I think of as a constant embarkation,” says Baxter. “Being at home inspires me. I’m always from here and I wanted to bring the visuals, all things sensory aspects and my music, Gullah rhythms and spirituality.”

The latter part of the evening includes Baxter’s arrangement of drum legend Max Roach’s “Ghost Dance”; a chamber orchestra piece by Charleston composer Trevor Weston, inspired by Charleston painter John Green’s images; and Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály’s “Duo for Violin and Cello, Op.7—Adagio.” The evening concludes with Ravel’s “Bolero,” a piece that serves as a conceptual bridge to the other side of Baxter’s career.

In jazz circles, he’s a renowned accompanist who spent years on the road with distinguished pianist-vocalist Freddy Cole (Nat King Cole’s younger brother). Due to the demands of Ranky Tanky, he had given up that gig several seasons before Cole died in June 2020 at the age of 88. But the drummer kept his spot with Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist René Marie. He’s been an essential part of her evolution over the past decade, co-producing several albums as she’s increasingly focused on her original songs. One of her most dramatic pieces is a mashup of Ravel’s “Bolero” and Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”

But in Ranky Tanky, Baxter truly made his mark. Since coming together about six years ago, the quintet has honed a singular repertoire from Gullah songs, West African chants and rhythms passed down for centuries within a resilient archipelago of coastal Black American communities. Like his bandmates, Baxter was weaned on these sounds in church. But rather than taking a musicological or preservationist stance, Ranky Tanky combines traditional Gullah songs with jazz and other African diaspora idioms.

Baxter arranges the music for a combo with jazz instrumentation, and as a result songs traditionally rendered via body percussion and a cappella, call-and-response vocals have found a vast, new audience. The band’s eponymous 2017 album topped the jazz charts, and its follow up, 2019’s Good Time, won the Grammy Award for best regional roots music album.

“The special thing about Ranky Tanky is that it’s the very first secular representation of the culture,” Baxter says. “Most time when you heard that music, it was embedded in church. We play the Gullah standards, and all the rhythms are authentic to my growing up in church, but we didn’t come together to play gospel. That’s also the intent with this show, representing other voices to open the ears and broaden the palate. It’s so important that [this] programming exists.”

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SoundBox’s “Embarkation,” curated by Quentin Baxter, takes place Dec. 17 and 18 at Davies Symphony Hall.