Hitomi Oba’s tenor saxophone was almost as tall as she was when she began playing it in the fourth grade. Half a lifetime later it has taken her to jazz festivals from Monterey to Montreux, and into all-star high-school bands from the Grammy Awards to New York’s Lincoln Center. The most talked-about soloist in the award-winning Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble, eighteen-year-old Oba just graduated and is now headed for UCLA.
But first, she’s reuniting with old bandmates for a concert at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Jazzschool (2087 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-845-5373), billed as “The Really Young Lions,” with bassist and guitarist brothers Tom and Charles Altura (Berkeley High classes of ’01 and ’00 respectively), and drummer Justin Brown from Oba’s trio of the past year.
In spite of their youth, this afternoon of original compositions and jazz standards “is nostalgic for us,” says Oba, “because it’s a reunion after we last played together a year ago. We’ve all developed in different directions. Charles has been at Stanford and Tom is majoring in ethnomusicology at UCLA, but we all know each other so well musically. We don’t go, “Let’s play like this.’ We go wherever the music takes us.”
“Every person you play with is a different experience,” adds Tom Altura, who was named Best Soloist from a High School by Down Beat magazine. “Hitomi and I connected when we were playing together and found we could talk about things through the music, without words. There’s a lot of that in the group that will play Sunday.”
This past year Oba has led her own trio, with Brown on drums, where the minimal instrumentation allowed her to develop an expansive and open-ended approach to improvisation. “I didn’t write so much this year because we could get together and play any tune and go anywhere with the music,” she says, referring to such pieces as John Coltrane’s “Alabama” and her innovative reworking of the traditional Japanese folk song, “Sakura.”
Violin was her first choice of instrument, but when she was in fourth grade Oba’s family briefly moved to Japan, her parents’ homeland. “My father had played electric guitar in a rock band that performed at events like anti-nuke rallies, and my mother played flutes, especially Indian bamboo flutes.” Hitomi’s younger sister Erika Oba plays flute in the Berkeley High Orchestra. “There were no strings at the Japanese school I had to attend, so the teacher suggested saxophone.” She soon fell in love with its expressive abilities.
While saxophone is her main outlet, the natural ease with which she tackles music is not limited to sax, or even to jazz. In the past few weeks she could be heard dueling with fellow Berkeley High tenor alum Dave Ellis (fifteen years her senior) at Yoshi’s on the John Coltrane-Sonny Rollins duet “Tenor Madness,” and playing piano and leading a classical chamber ensemble at UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall in the acclaimed Young Musicians’ Program for music students from low-income families. She has studied for seven years in YMP and now teaches as well. “I found that if I didn’t worry what other people will think and just play what I felt, I felt better,” Oba observes, “and so did other people.”