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Now You See Them…

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The East Bay's French Impressionists: Ernie Mansfield and Mary Watkins Credits: Anna Kuperberg

Mary Watkins and Ernie Mansfield’s latest group has been fifteen years in the making. Intermittent collaborators since the mid-’80s, pianist Watkins and flutist Mansfield have created a variety of small ensembles over the years designed to explore their melodically rich original music. Despite the fact that both musicians have been working in the Bay Area music scene for almost a quarter century, they’ve maintained stealth careers, only occasionally surfacing in clubs, which makes their latest venture particularly noteworthy.

A quartet featuring percussionist Phil Hawkins, a Bay Area newcomer, and bassist Karen Horner, who also plays with the Berkeley Symphony, the group draws heavily from European classical music, but is steeped in jazz syncopation and spontaneity.

“I would describe it as jazz,” says Watkins during an interview at Mansfield’s house in North Berkeley. “It’s very accessible, but not mushy. It ranges from straight ahead [to] lots of sambas, [to] some classical pieces arranged as jazz pieces. We like melody, and sometimes we like to step out.”

Watkins’ hesitancy to use the “J” word stems more from an aversion to labels than doubt about where she’s coming from (“I like that thing of openness,” Watkins says. “I hate being penned in.”) Raised in Pueblo, Colorado, she studied composition at Howard University and then supported herself playing jazz piano. She quickly found more lucrative work playing R&B, working with musicians like Donald Byrd, George Duke, and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Phillip Bailey. During a year-long sojourn in the LA studio scene, she hooked up with Holly Near, and ended up moving to the Bay Area in 1977.

Engaged in a wide array of musical endeavors ever since, Watkins maintains a multitrack career as a performer, producer, arranger, and composer, with several grants from the NEA and Meet the Composer to her credit. Her latest album is Song for My Mother on High Tide Music, a lovely trio session with bassist Cindy Brown and drummer Joyce Kouffman, and her next project is an opera based on the life of Red Cross founder Clara Barton, with a libretto by playwright Lance Belville. She’s also carved out a niche writing scores for documentaries, though she’s learned it’s not exactly a dependable line of work.

“Every year I do a few,” Watkins explains. “In 1994 I did three films nominated for Academy Awards: Freedom on My Mind, Straight from the Heart, and Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter. And then there were no gigs. It was just dead for two or three years.”

Watkins and Mansfield first performed together at the Russian River Jazz Festival back in 1984. Born and raised in Chicago, Mansfield too settled in the Bay Area in 1977, and gained notice in the ’80s with two beautiful albums on Catero Records, Windsailor and ColorDrops (now distributed through his own MP3 Web site). Along with Carolyn Brandy, he and Watkins formed the BMW Trio a few years later, but they soon got involved with other projects. They started laying the groundwork for the current quartet about a year ago. Though he also plays saxophone, Mansfield’s gorgeous flute work is the band’s defining element, along with his penchant for transforming classical compositions into effective jazz vehicles.

“There’s not a lot of jazz material written for flute, which is my main instrument, along with alto and bass flute,” says Mansfield, “I try to write music that fits those instruments. Like, we’re doing two pieces by Ravel and Debussy. They don’t sound classical but they have that feeling of French Impressionism.”