Smooth but Funky

Ray Obiedo gives the reborn Berkeley Jazz festival a shot of East Bay urban funk.

Jazz music is blossoming in Berkeley this summer. New nightspots and festivals such as Anna’s Jazz Island and the Downtown Berkeley Jazz Festival (August 18-21) are enriching a thriving straight-ahead scene, as further exemplified by Susan Muscarella’s Jazzschool, Downtown Restaurant, Jupiter, and others. Now we can add this Saturday’s Berkeley Jazz Festival at the UC Berkeley Greek Theatre. And the secret word is “smooth.”

The festival’s return after a long absence highlights a smooth-jazz roster, with Rachelle Ferrell, KEM, Boney James, Lalah Hathaway, Bobby Caldwell, Unwrapped All Stars, and Ray Obiedo & the Urban Latin Jazz Project. (The event is produced by Another Planet Entertainment and has no connection to the onetime UCB-student-run festival, founded in 1966, which ran for more than twenty years.) “I played the original Berkeley Jazz Festival a lot,” recalls Obiedo, 52, at his home in San Leandro. “I was there with Bill Summers, Rodney Franklin, and my group Rhythmus 21 that had Andy Narell, Sheila Escovedo, and Vicki Randle in it. That was about eighteen years ago.” The original festival was notable for its balance between the straight-ahead and smooth schools, with Miles Davis playing after George Howard, and Pieces of a Dream following Archie Shepp and Abbey Lincoln. That diverse perspective later turned segregated, as smooth went commercial and straight-ahead became uncommercial.

Guitarist Obiedo is usually lumped into the smooth-jazz bag, given the commercial success of his albums on Windham Hill. The well-rounded electric musician and producer is a 1970 graduate of Kennedy High School in Richmond. He picked up the guitar at seventeen and got his chops playing locally; he has written songs for the Whispers and played with a who’s who of artists. “Growing up in the East Bay — Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland — there was always some sort of soul/R&B-based music around me,” he says. “I couldn’t help but be influenced by it. But somewhere along the line playing jazz, Latin, and funk all got combined together for me.”

Perhaps his habit of insinuating funk into everything he does is what gives Obiedo his unique stamp. He has played with Herbie Hancock, Julian Priester, George Duke, Linda Tillery, Teresa Trull, and Pete Escovedo, among others. His first major gig came with organ-grinder Johnny “Hammond” Smith in the early 1970s. In 1989, he recorded his debut album Perfect Crime and got major play on The Quiet Storm on KBLX. Today, he’s happy working at his recording studio and playing with his Urban Latin Jazz Project, a high-caliber cast including Paul Van Wageningen (drums), David Belove (bass), Rose Ann Dimalanta (keys), Derek Rolando (percussion), and Alex Myrzun (sax). Joining him at the Greek Theatre this Saturday as special guest is Peter Michael Escovedo from TV’s The Wayne Brady Show.

If anyone can connect all the jazz dots of the history-rich Berkeley fest, it’s Obiedo, who has also lined up a date with his band at the Downtown Berkeley BART station on August 20 as part of the Berkeley Downtown event. His MO is to break down borders. “My music has always been about the inclusion of styles,” he explains. “It’s my interpretation of what I hear. I’ve always tried to play a variety of music, but with this group we focus more on the Caribbean and Brazilian. The “urban’ part is the funk and those East Bay syncopated grooves.”

The Berkeley Jazz Festival begins at noon on Saturday at UC Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. Tickets are $53.75 from

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