Since Bowie’s ‘Fame,’ Jean Fineberg Has Written Her Own Musical Rules

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Saxophonist Jean Fineberg plays a solo.
In the 1970s, Jean Fineberg recorded with all-time greats like David Bowie and Chic. And in more recent years, she's been a force in the East Bay's jazz scene, connecting and creating opportunities for women players. (Sandy Morris)

Carry your horn with you and you never know where you might end up. For East Bay saxophonist and flutist Jean Fineberg, toting an instrument around has led to some memorable encounters, like the time she ended up at a drug-fueled Electric Ladyland Studios recording session with David Bowie and John Lennon, contributing backup vocals on the 1975 hit “Fame.”

A Bronx native who spent more than a decade on the New York music scene playing R&B, pop, jazz and fusion, Fineberg has been a creative force in the Bay Area since moving west in 1989 with trumpeter Ellen Seeling, her partner in music and life. A versatile and well-traveled performer with more than 50 albums to her credit, including recordings by Patti LaBelle, Bo Diddley and Laura Nyro, Fineberg also played on Sister Sledge’s iconic hit “We Are Family” and anchored the horn section on Chic’s influential albums C’est Chic and Risqué.

In the Bay Area she and Seeling have long co-led the Montclair Women’s Big Band, but in April of this year the saxophonist released her first album under her own name, Jean Fineberg & JAZZphoria. Drawing from the Montclair band’s deep pool of talent, the eight-piece combo makes its Freight & Salvage debut Sunday, Nov. 20. Featuring her original tunes and arrangements, the album reflects Fineberg’s love of improvisation and her conviction that music should be inextricably tied to dance and communal celebration, both of which served her well in her session with Bowie.

Fineberg drifted into Bowie’s orbit because a friend was dating him at the time, and she invited Fineberg to the studio. “I happened to have my flute with me and he asked if I wanted to play,” she recalls. “I ended up taking a solo on ‘Fame.’ And I sang on that too, and I’m not a singer! We all spent the night at his brownstone all coked up listening back to all the tracks. Philip Glass was there too, though I don’t know if he was doing coke. Two weeks later Bowie’s people called and asked for my info. I was in a 20-something daze and didn’t grasp the import. I was credited for vocals, but he cut most of the flute solo, which was totally fine. It’s an amazing song.”

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Many years later, the track with Fineberg’s flute work surfaced online.

In making her own musical statement, Fineberg wanted to document a diverse program of her originals exploring a variety of forms and grooves. While her burly tenor sax guides the proceedings, she gives plenty of space to top-shelf players like trumpeter Marina Garza, guitarist Nancy Wenstrom and low-reed expert Carolyn Walter on baritone sax and bass clarinet

They’re all well-traveled veterans, but Fineberg always has her eye out for young talent. Handling acoustic and electric bass duties is Jodi Durst, a recent graduate of the California Jazz Conservatory. And Erika Oba is a rising composer with an Oberlin Conservatory jazz piano degree who serves as resident YouthStage musical director at Berkeley Playhouse. She holds down the JAZZphoria keyboard bench while also contributing on flute and piccolo.

Oba credits Fineberg and Seeling, who are devoted to championing rising female musicians, with hiring her for some of her first gigs when she moved back to the East Bay, starting with a faculty spot on the summer Girls’ Jazz & Blues Camp they’ve produced at the California Jazz Conservatory since 2011. Before long she was subbing in the Montclair Women’s Big Band for pianist Tammy Hall, “who was a great mentor for me,” says Oba. She also connected so well with new JAZZphoria drummer Jeremy Steinkoler that they’ve started performing in another trio (including a Dec. 11 Outsound date at Musicians Union in San Francisco).

“Jeanie’s band is always a really good time,” Oba says. “All of her concerts feel like a party. Her music is really fun, and while a lot of it is pretty complicated with shifting meters, it still feels like party music. We love it when people dance.”

Fineberg also plays drums in Party Monsters, a five-women cover band that often gets booked at county fairs. She’s worked in lots of mixed-gender combos, and has found that she prefers the camaraderie of all- or majority-women ensembles, which is what she was looking for in JAZZphoria. As a composer and arranger, she puts a premium on good readers and multi-instrumentalists, “because the bigger the palette the better,” she says. “And I wanted team players, people who were into the music, not hired guns. If I found two players who met those criteria and one was a man and one was a woman, I went with the woman. I wanted these underrecognized to players to have more visibility, and it turned out to be seven women and one man.”

Jean Fineberg & JAZZphoria. (Irene Young)

If Hollywood ever makes a film about women horn players, Fineberg and Seeling’s story could serve as a model for the romantic subplot. They met via the all-women band Isis, which Carol MacDonald and Ginger Bianco launched in 1972 when horn-driven bands like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears were juggernauts. Fineberg was a founding member, and Seeling connected with the group several years later during the making of the third Isis album Breaking Through “in Allen Toussaint’s studio in New Orleans,” Fineberg says.

Recommended by the great multi-instrumentalist Howard Johnson, Seeling arrived at the session “and we did not get along at all,” Fineberg says. “I was a wild rock ‘n’ roll player, so here we were, me and trombonist Lolly Bienenfeld, and Ellen starts instructing us that the trumpet always leads the horn section. That’s what she learned in school.”

Whatever the tensions, Seeling joined the band for an East Coast tour, and somewhere along the Atlantic seaboard, their relationship changed. They both went on to tour and record with Laura Nyro, becoming close friends with her while the women in the band joined Nyro in the RV and the men flew to the next gig. Playing horn parts they created behind her vocals, they’re featured throughout her 1977 live album Season of Lights (in a band that included jazz bass legend Richard Davis, vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and drummer Andy Newmark).

“‘Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp’ has some of my best flute work on record, and ‘I Am the Blues’ is some of Ellen’s best trumpet playing,” Fineberg says. “Laura didn’t have any charts and couldn’t tell you what chords you were playing. She’d say, ‘I want you to play palm trees on this section, or ocean waves.’”

Looking for an outlet for her songwriting, Fineberg and Seeling launched the Brecker Brothers-inspired fusion band DEUCE, which performed at jazz festivals and clubs around the world in the 1980s while releasing several well-received albums. The band continued to tour and perform after they relocated to the East Bay in 1989, but when the opportunity arose to create the Montclair Women’s Big Band in 1997, they quickly established the 17-piece orchestra. Over the past decade or so Seeling has often taken a more visible role as an activist demanding equal opportunities for women instrumentalists, who are still often overlooked when it comes to major festivals. With JAZZphoria, Fineberg is making a potent musical statement that draws on her wealth of accumulated experience.

“I’m coming from the blues essentially in everything I do,” she says. “I’m coming from rhythm. That’s how I start a tune, whether it’s blues, R&B or Latin music. I thought long and hard about calling it JAZZphoria because I didn’t want to typecast the group, that we’d be swinging all the time. But it is all improvised music. The tunes are vehicles for the soloists, but it’s very eclectic because I like so many different things. I’m tired of going to concerts where everything sounds the same.”

If there’s one thing that doesn’t seem to have changed much over the years it’s the predictable reaction to a woman with a horn. Fineberg recently posted on Facebook about a random encounter at a hotel in Wisconsin where “a 77-year-old lawyer and university professor, upon hearing that I'm a sax player, said ‘That's a big instrument for a little girl.’” The post elicited more than 250 comments, with women bassists, drummers, saxophonists, percussionists and trombonists all describing similarly witless comments.

Fineberg has no time for fogies of any age. She’s looking to carry her horn into all the best places, bringing JAZZphoria to “the Monterey Jazz Festival, San Jose, Healdsburg, SFJAZZ, Yoshi’s. What everybody wants.”

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Jean Fineberg & JAZZphoria perform at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley on Nov. 20 at 7 p.m.