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Sonic Frontiers: Deeply informed by traditional music of the Philippines, Karl Evangelista’s ‘Apura’ is a music experience for the heart and mind

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POWER TRIO Evangelista usually performs with Grex, the free jazz–inspired band he leads with Scampavia, drawing on folkloric melodies for a musical conversation.

The first time Karl Evangelista counted off the tempo and strummed the opening chords of his epic jazz suite Apura, he abruptly halted the proceedings after a few notes. False start. He bailed out of a second attempt just as quickly. But looking calm and unflappable, he found the sweet spot the third time, launching the quartet on an enthralling music journey that bridged cultures and generations. Though far more easily overcome, it was hard not to see the hiccups as symbolic of the many obstacles and complications he navigated in assembling his stellar cast last week at the Oaktown Jazz Workshop.

An Oakland guitarist and composer with a rigorously conceived and wide-open aesthetic, Evangelista is a creative force at the sonic frontiers where the Bay Area’s new music scene bleeds into jazz. Deeply informed by traditional music of the Philippines, he designed Apura by drawing on folkloric melodies, though the musical conversation unfurled with the roiling ebb and surge of a jazz colloquy.

Featuring 81-year-old drum legend Andrew Cyrille, who flew in from New Jersey for the project, Berkeley bassist Lisa Mezzacappa and San Francisco tenor saxophonist Francis Wong, the core ensemble brought together four players known for generating ambitious and consequent collaborations. For the suite’s final movements, pianist Rei Scampavia provided carefully calibrated comping, and tenor saxophonist Patrick Wolff added a swell of energy to a gloriously extended crescendo. The entire concert was filmed, and will be available for screening July 31–Aug. 1. 

Evangelista’s path to Oaktown, marked by delays and challenges—pandemic-related and otherwise—forced him to reschedule the concert and subsequent recording session three times. He conceived of Apura, which translates from Tagalog as “very urgent,” as a multi-generational tribute to the great South African drummer Louis Moholo, “who inspired me to pursue my path as a performer,” said Evangelista, who studied with Roscoe Mitchell as a graduate student at Mills College. 

“I wanted to honor that and the sacrifices Moholo’s generation made, and it was always my intention to bring Louis to California, where he hadn’t played since some 1980s gigs with Peter Brötzmann,” Evangelista said. “I spent a year trying to get him a visa, and technically that’s still ongoing.”

Cyrille, who performed widely and recorded with London-based Moholo, an outspoken opponent of South Africa’s apartheid system, was an obvious choice to step in for the project. While aptly described as a key architect of free jazz rhythmic concepts through his long tenure with pianist Cecil Taylor—circa 1965-75—Cyrille is versed in an expansive array of jazz idioms. He got his start playing with veteran masters like tenor sax patriarch Coleman Hawkins and pianist/arranger Mary Lou Williams, and his approach to the trap set encompasses everything from gospel and bebop, to West African motifs and jazz precursors like stomps and work songs.

As a young drummer coming up on the New York scene, “I was listening to Max Roach and Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones,” Cyrille said. “Cecil called Duke Ellington his father, so he didn’t just jump into what he’s known for, either. When we started to explore extended forms and not play as metrically, we decided to have a conversation in another way. Not just in this AABA song form. We play phrases and move through the phrases, just like I’m speaking to you now.”

Cyrille hasn’t spent much time in the Bay Area in recent decades, making only a handful of appearances since a burst of activity at the turn of the century—most memorably a 2009 San Francisco Jazz Festival show at Swedish American Hall with Trio 3, his collective combo with bassist Reggie Workman and alto saxophonist Oliver Lake.

“He’s one of the most lyrical and melodic drummers that I’ve played with,” Lake told me before that performance. “You actually hear the tune when he’s playing it, and some of the solos he comes up with are so inspirational.”

Hearing Cyrille play Evangelista’s music in the intimate confines of the Oaktown Jazz Workshop was a revelation. Situated at center stage, he directed the flow with dynamic precision, shaping and guiding phrases while responding to Wong’s urgent flurries and Evangelista’s thoughtful, often telegraphic lines. He and Mezzacappa seemed to lock in with each other, forming a unit that bounced their bandmates into a thrilling variety of situations.

“Drums and bass are the foundation,” Cyrille said. “A lot of the time I was listening to Lisa, and she was listening to me.”

As a performer, Evangelista usually performs with the free-jazz inspired band he leads with Scampavia, called Grex. A power trio given to dense textures, the band released a bracing album last year, Everything You Said Was Wrong, in honor of another drum pioneer, Milford Graves. One thread connecting many of his activities is the desire to connect with, and honor, the older musicians who’ve inspired him.

It’s no coincidence that he recruited Francis Wong for Apura. A co-founder of the San Francisco label and organization AsianImprov Arts, which has shaped and championed leading artists such as pianist Vijay Iyer and multilingual vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu, Wong hired Evangelista for his first Bay Area gig. 

“He’s been a mentor who educated me in aspects of music and politics,” Evangelista said. “That’s a rare opportunity. I always regretted, by virtue of geography and generational happenstance, that I didn’t have the chance to apprentice under the musicians I grew up admiring. I wanted a project that combined the strengths of Louis’s era and the intellectual work I’ve been doing.”

In Apura, Evangelista combines head, heart and disparate traditions for a heady, gutsy musical experience.

Tickets to the Apura stream here.