Though he has been living in Manhattan since 2003, Avi Bortnick carries his East Bay funk roots with him like his cell phone number’s 510 area code. The Israeli-born, St. Louis-raised guitarist was already a budding musician in 1982 when his family settled in Oakland, and he enrolled at UC Berkeley to pursue his passion for Brazilian music through a degree in Latin American studies. By the late ’80s he was a key member of the Bay Area’s world groove scene, playing with a succession of funk, African, and Caribbean bands, such as Afrobeat torchbearers Kotoja, acid-jazz pioneers Alphabet Soup, vocal wizard Bobby McFerrin, steel-drum master Jeff Narell, and his own old-school instrumental funk band the Dry Look.
In 2000, revered jazz guitarist John Scofield hired Bortnick for what turned into the Uberjam Band, after a superlative recommendation from Charlie Hunter (who told Scofield, “This guy is the best rhythm guitar player in the world”). The groove-oriented group may have disappointed some of Sco’s jazz fans, but it won him a new following on the jam-band circuit. During the four and a half years Bortnick toured with Scofield, Uberjam turned into a perfect showcase for his riveting rhythm guitar work, and gave him the space to hone his laptop sampling skills. It also paved the way for his move to New York, where he has been dividing his time between various ensembles, including Suite (formerly Shitty Shitty Band Band), which features three-fourths of the Brazilian Girls, and his other career as an acoustical architect. After two albums, Scofield moved on to new projects, but the band reunites this summer at the Monterey Jazz Festival. “For me, I was actually getting a little tired of being on the road that much,” Bortnick says. “I think we all felt that it was a good run, and we’re ready to do something else.”
Bortnick returns to the Bay Area this week for a series of gigs introducing his new band Cornpone, including Thursday at the Boom Boom Room, Friday at Jupiter, and Monday at the Elbo Room, where he shares the bill with the band of another East Bay funkster, Will Bernard’s Motherbug. Cornpone features bassist Andy Hess, a former Sco associate who left the Uberjam Band to join Gov’t Mule; drummer Tony Mason, whose credits include gigs with Martha Wainwright, Joan Osborne, and Leo Nocentelli; and keyboardist Ben Stivers, who has put in stints with Thalia and the Bee Gees. While the group draws on funk, Bortnick says that Cornpone may surprise people who know him mostly through his work with Scofield.
“I’m not playing that much rhythm guitar,” Bortnick says. “It’s more broad-based guitar with chords and melody. The tunes are a little less jam-oriented, and a little more complicated harmonically, at least by the standards of jamming on one chord. The music is pretty highly arranged, like pop or rock songs that are instrumental, with defined verse-chorus-verse-bridge structure, which to me makes a song feel more complete. Rather than being what most people would call funk, it’s more rock/jazz that’s a little bit funky, and sometimes we get into Afrobeat and highlife. To me it just sounds like music.”
Friday, 8 p.m., Jupiter, 2181 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-943-9277. JupiterBeer.com