S.F. Chronicle Datebook 9/10/06 – SCORING BIG

feature article by Sam Hurwitt

She may have moved to New York 10 years ago, but the Bay Area will be hearing a lot from Gina Leishman this week.

Lisa Peterson’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage,” with a new score by Leishman, opens Wednesday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. That same night, the California Shakespeare Theater production of “As You Like It” that she scored for director Jonathan Moscone starts previews. (It opens Saturday.)

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Leishman originally composed the “Mother Courage” music for a production that ran this summer at the La Jolla Playhouse, which then became Berkeley Rep’s season opener.

That this “Mother Courage” is a Southern California import may also account for the fact that it uses David Hare’s translation rather than the new one by Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone’s frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, which closed last week in a Public Theater production with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in New York’s Central Park.

In any case, it’s old home week for Leishman, and not just because the Bay Area was her home from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s. The British-born composer has a long history with Brecht and Shakespeare — and with Berkeley Rep, Cal Shakes, and directors Peterson and Moscone.

“For me, the wild thing is the fact that it’s come full circle in some ways,” Leishman says, “because when I first moved here, the very first thing I did was a production of ‘The Threepenny Opera’ at the Eureka, which Tony (Taccone) was part of in those days.”

Leishman’s love affair with Brecht goes back further than that. When she was living in London in the ’70s, she and a friend founded a theater company in an old taxi-meter factory near Paddington Station, which they dedicated to musical performances of Brecht’s works.

“Like all good things, it came and went,” she says. “When I came to the States at the end of the ’70s, basically I ran away both from London and the theater and just became a musician.”

An association with the juggling Flying Karamazov Brothers soon led her back to the stage as a musician and actor in Robert Woodruff’s all-juggler 1983 production of Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” at the Goodman Theater in Chicago and Lincoln Center in New York. Around that time, the Flying K’s were invited to perform their own show on Broadway, where union rules required them to hire musicians whether they would use them or not. They asked Leishman and others to be members of their pit band — which she named the Kamikaze Ground Crew — and they are still together after two decades. The septet just finished an album and will play Nov. 1 at the Great American Music Hall as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival, the first time the band has performed here since moving to New York with Leishman.

Brecht would also continue to pull her back to the stage. After “Threepenny,” her first of many collaborations with director Peterson was as a musician in La Jolla’s 1994 production of “The Good Person of Setzuan.” In 1998, for a Brecht centenary celebration at New York’s PS 122, Leishman created the Mr. Wau Wa Band, an all-Brecht quintet featuring four Kamikazes and performance artist Rinde Eckert, which also still performs on occasion.

But performing Brecht is one thing. Composing for Brecht is another matter entirely.

“The musical vocabulary of his collaborators, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler and Paul Dessau, I realize has permeated my musical thinking,” Leishman says. “So when Lisa Peterson calls up and says, ‘Do you want to write a score for “Mother Courage,” ‘ I go, ‘Oh, God, no. How could I do that?’ ”

At first Leishman suggested Dessau’s music for Brecht’s 1949 Berliner Ensemble production instead, but she quickly realized it would be too difficult and would require an orchestra the Rep didn’t have.

“This was going to be Brecht, poor-theater style,” she says. “One musician originally — now I have two because it’s a co-production.”

One of the actors doubled as a drummer, to which Leishman added a pianist-accordionist and a tuba player to help capture both the military air of the anti-war classic and also a circus element in the design.

“It’s kind of scary, because how do you stand in the shadow of those guys?” Leishman says. “I didn’t consciously try to write a Brechtian score. I just wrote what I heard, and I wrote for the singers in the La Jolla production.”

Leishman eventually gave in to the musical associations she had with Brecht.

“I had to let them in on the conversation,” she says. “If I tried to shut them out, it would just be false. So I let them inform me, and consequently I think what I ended up writing is very much in the pocket of the old style. But also it’s me; it’s the way I write and I hear.”

Shakespeare is one playwright for whom Leishman has been making music for a long time, going back to her first Berkeley Rep production, Sharon Ott’s 1986 “Twelfth Night,” and her first Berkeley Shakespeare Festival (now Cal Shakes) collaboration, Richard E.T. White’s particularly Brechtian take on “Measure for Measure” in 1989. When Moscone became artistic director of Cal Shakes, he brought in Leishman (with whom he’d worked in Dallas and Portland, Maine) to work with Peterson again, on 2000’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” She has come back to score a show almost every year since, while she and Peterson have continued their collaborations from the Vineyard Theatre in New York to the Guthrie in Minneapolis.

“This is what’s so wild about this summer,” Leishman says, “the crossed threads.”

Because “As You Like It” is about exiles in the forest, Leishman started playing with Eastern European Gypsy themes. She had originally planned on using all strings, but an accordion wound up creeping its way in as well. So now she’s working with an accordionist, a Serbian bass player and a violinist who plays a second violin tuned an octave lower.

“I’m in the midst of writing it right now,” she says. “I can’t really nail it down so that it’s in this box or this box, but the influences are Eastern Europe and,” she pauses, finally adding with a laugh, “me.”

Sonomu.net March 2006 – Gina Leishman, Bed Time (GCQ)

by Stephen Fruitman

Gina Leishman’s bedtime stories aren’t like Mother Goose’s. Instead of singing baby to sleep, she enfolds us grown-ups in a warm nighty-night blanket which smells faintly of spilt cocktails and cigarette smoke.

Her voice also curls through the air like the smoke from a cigarette left in an ashtray in some after hours jazz club. Leishman is otherwise a highly regarded artist on both coasts of the States, known for all kinds of vocal gymnastics. On Bed Time, she takes a different tack, keeping it all very nice, sweet (but never saccharine!) and low. All twelve tracks are self-penned, though she “borrows” lyrics for five of them from William Shakespeare (from Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night and Cymbeline, for the scholars in the audience).

On each respective track she is accompanied by just two or three instrumentalists – brushed drum and bass, or violin and piano, or guitar and bass, accordian and muted trumpet, whatever – always to exalted effect. And no surprise, that; have a look at a list of her studio musicians: Guitarist Marc Ribot (absolutely brilliant when he turns up – what else is new?); Steve Bernstein and Peck Allmond on trumpets, Doug Weiselman also on guitar, Rob Burger on accordion, Anthony Coleman on piano, Jenny Scheinman on violin, Greg Cohen and Trevor Dunn on bass and Roberto Rodriguez and Kenny Wollesen on drums and percussion. It’s an absolute all-star lineup from Downtown New York City. What’s more, Gina whips out her ukulele once or twice.

The lyrics are stellar, and suggest, cajole, invite, reassure, challenge, observe, blink shyly from beneath battering eyelashes and open their arms to embrace. The styles range from moody jazz and elegant blues to softly swinging fin-de-siècle pop like “O Mistress Mine”, a knowingly naïve setting for one of the Shakespeare texts. Many different vocalists come to mind when hearing Leishman, especially – if for nothing else, the clarity of her enunciation of each and every syllable – Annette Peacock.

This is a 2004 release, which your present reviewer only received in 2005 and who, ashamed to say, hasn’t been able to get around to reviewing before now, halfway through the third month of 2006. But its timeless quality guarantees it a long, if not eternal, shelf life.

Downtown Music Gallery – Bed Time (2004)

Featuring Gina on vocals, piano, ukelele & songs, Steve Bernstein & Peck Allmond on trumpets, Marc Ribot & Doug Weiselman on guitars, Rob Burger on accordion, Anthony Coleman on piano, Jenny Scheinman on violin, Greg Cohen & Trevor Dunn on bass and Roberto Rodriguez & Kenny Wollesen on drums & percussion. Gina Leishman has co-led east cost/west coast downtown all-star instrumental ensemble Kamikaze Ground Crew (KGC) with Doug Weiselman for a decade or so now. ‘Bed Time’ is her first solo effort as a singer, with 5 songs using the words of William Shakespeare. Much different from the quirky classical/jazz/world music influences of KGC, ‘Bed Time’ is more a reflective excursion into melancholy jazzy/bluesy ballads and other endearing songs. Often stripped down and spacious, these songs hover like ghosts and drift in eerie, suspended shadows. Both Greg Cohen’s or Trevor Dunn’s basses hum at the center of many of these tunes, while Ribot’s guitar, Rob’s accordion, Anthony’s piano and Doug’s clarinet, carefully add their minimal spice in just the right places. Perfect late night listening, melancholy, moody, elegant and rather enchanting, as well

Covers (for Koch Jazz January 26th, 2000)

by Derk Richardson

At the rate Kamikaze Ground Crew cranks out albums, we can expect the all-star band’s next pit stop around 2006. That’s OK, because there’s enough musical and emotional content under these Covers to fuel high-altitude listening for years to come. Originally organized to accompany the acrobatic antics of the Flying Karamazov Brothers, KGC recorded its first LP in 1985. Before Covers the rambunctious septet had produced only two other CDs, 1990’s The Scenic Route and 1993’s Madam Marie’s Temple of Knowledge. In the meantime, the personnel has shifted around original members Gina Leishman (accordion, saxes, bass clarinet, Hammond organ, vocals), Doug Wieselman (clarinets, saxes, electric guitar, balalaika, Hammond organ), and Steven Bernstein (trumpet, slide trumpet). Since the last outing, tenor and soprano saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum has returned (replacing Ralph Carney), and trombonist Art Baron, tuba player Marcus Rojas, and drummer Kenny Wollesen have come on board.

Whereas previous KGC recordings featured mostly original Leishman and Wieselman compositions, Covers showcases the brilliant way they and Bernstein arrange other people’s material. Opening with a dreamy version of a pop tune from Bhutan, Covers turns pieces by Stockhausen, Hendrix (“Electric Ladyland”), Satie, Huey “Piano” Smith (“Blow Wind Blow” and “Rockin’ Pneumonia”), Eisler and Brecht, and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo into vehicles for extended collective gliding and individual soaring, consistent with the idiosyncratic interpretative styles of other bands that have featured these players, such as the Lounge Lizards, Spanish Fly, Sex Mob, Hieroglyphics Ensemble, and the Carla Bley big band. A hybrid of jazz, modern classical, rock, avant-cabaret, and New Orleans R&B, KGC’s music yields pleasure on its own terms, much like that of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Mothers of Invention, or Willem Breuker Kollektief, its bent but beautiful structures providing cover from the mainstream culture’s hail of mediocrity.

JAZZIZ Magazine May 1994 – Kamikaze Ground Crew

by William Stephenson

“Kamikaze Ground Crew”. Let me guess, Some John Zorn-ish enterprise with wailing horns and screaming voices and frenetic drumming. Ninety second barrages of improvisation, where the moment is everything, and each is crazed, anarchic, and unrepeatable. Serious hard core free jazz, right?

Nope. Despite its evocative name, Kamikaze Ground Crew is more about attention to the landscape than scorched earth policy, more about structure than free improvisation, more inviting than in-your-face… even if the ensemble did start out eleven years ago playing in a circus.

“The name and the music that we play these days have gotten very far apart,” admits composer and Kamikaze co-leader Gina Leishman. “The name belongs to where we started.” Here’s the story. As Leishman was travelling across country, heading towards Broadway for a stint with the Flying Karamazov Brothers in a then nameless stage band, she recalled with amusement the title of a radio play by an Irish friend. Perhaps the Flying Karamazovs would need a little support for an unexpected landing, she thought. She liked the humour and the alliterative K’s. Kamikaze, Karamazov. It seemed right. “We were all a little crazy,” she explains. So she called ahead, suggested the moniker, and continued on her way, never realising how long it would follow her.

That Leishman’s group might outdistance a label, even a very clever one, should come as no surprise to anyone who listens to her music or knows her background. Born in England, and shaped by studies at the Vienna Conservatory of Music and Edinburgh University, Leishman continued, after settling in the U.S. in 1977, to cultivate cosmopolitan musical interests. In fact, listening to a recent Kamikaze Ground Crew release is a bit like sitting through a witty and unpredictable travelogue.

Their 1990 release on New World Records “wasn’t called The Scenic Route for nothing”, Leishman insists. Kamikaze Ground Crew recordings are “put together in such a way that if you listen to one from one end to the other then it will take you on a very wild journey, and bring you back.” The trips are individual ones, however. “Everyone has their own ideas of what the pictures are.”

The potential views are limited almost solely by the imagination of the listener, bec .…ause the perspectives offered in the compositions are wide and various.

While the American improvising tradition is an important aspect of what Leishman and her fellow musicians write and perform, jazz is only one of the influences that shapes the music, along with European street music, klezmer, circus, rock and roll, classical chamber music, and various other world cultures, whether it be Italian… Fellini movies…African, Bulgarian, Balkan, or whatever.

Which is not to suggst that the music they make is simply a hodge-podge or crazy quilt. From the brief excursions that make up The Scenic Route to the lengthier voyages which mark their latest release, Madam Marie’s Temple of Knowlege (also on New World Records), each composition provides a more or less stable environment, each cultural hybrid creates its own peculiar locale. According to co-leader Doug Wieselman, who plays variou .s woodwind instruments and composed three pieces on Madam Marie’s, “I look at parts of the pieces as places. They’re actually sort of physical or imaginary places that I am drawing from or going to”. The ensemble’s variety, he continues, comes from “trying to be true to what we hear and like and love.” Adds Leishman, “It’s who we are, and what we bring.”

What they bring together is not only a global vision and singular skills in composition and arranging, but a highly talented group of performers. Trumpeter Steven Bernstein has played with Carla Bley, the Lounge Lizards, and Digable Planets; trombonist Jeff Cressman plays with Peter Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphic Ensemble, and Apfelbaum himself put in a stint form 1987 to 1990. He was replaced by saxophonist Ralph Carney (best known for his work with Tom Waits) after The Scenic Route, Bob Lipton, tuba, and Danny Frankel, percussion, round .out the ensemble.

Wieselman himself has performed with musicians like Wayne Horvitz, Guy Klucevsek, Bill Frisell, and Anthony Coleman. Leishman has a productive career as a composer, with premiers of at least a dozen works – primarily scores for the theater – since 1988, and she is a multi-instrumentalist who, on Madam Marie’s, performs on bass clarinet, alto sax, piccolo, accordion, and piano. She also sings.

Though the group began as a wind and percussion band for theatrical reasons (volume and portability), the strengths of the particular players have kept it that way, long after they left the circus to enter the studio and concert hall. Both Leishman and Wieselman emphasize the importance of the ensemble’s individuals to its evolving sound. To Wieselman, performance is “another level, beyond composition.” Leishman says that reliance on individual talents and personalities are fu .Êndamental to the way she writes. “I have this very strong feeling that if you’re going to use live musicians, then they should be part of what’s going on,” she insists. “Otherwise, you can put on a tape deck and go home.”

Given the full musical plates of each of its principals – in January, for instance, Leishman was preparing for performance of her first opera, The Dream Project – and limited venues for performance, it can be tough keeping even valuable enterprise like the Kamikaze Ground Crew going. “It’s pretty much once a year that we get together,” says Leishman, “with recording time and from one to four concerts.”

Have no fear that the Kamikaze Ground Crew grand tour won’t continue, however, even if the logistics are difficult and revenues small. Some time ago, Leishman explains, “We decided that we would keep the band together as an affair of the heart rather than of the pocketbook.” Some trips are worth any price.