SF JAZZ FEST 2006 website – KGC: A member-by-member look at this avant-jazz super group

by Cotton Sumlin

The New York Times described Kamikaze Ground Crew (11/1) as “by turns an oom-pah-pah circus band, an earnest pit orchestra, and a bluesy septet.” As co-founder, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Gina Leishman describes the band: “KGC is indeed something of a super-group these days — old friends who are all at the top of their game, each a band-leader in their own right.”

To take stock, here’s a member-by-member look at the many projects and accomplishments of this talented group of musicians and composers.

Gina Leishman
There is probably an instrument that Gina Leishman doesn’t play, but it’s hard to imagine. Besides being a vocalist, she plays piano, accordion, pump-organ, ukulele, alto and baritone saxophones, and the bass clarinet. The native of England and former student at the Vienna Conservatory combines her instrumental prowess with compositional talent—she’s written operas, performance pieces, and theater scores. She leads Mr. Wau-Wa, a band that focuses on the songs of Bertolt Brecht, and performs under her own name with self-described “infrequent regularity.”

Doug Wieselman
A multi-instrumental threat, K.G.C. co-leader Doug Wieselman plays a wide variety of reed, string, and percussion instruments. He’s also a skilled composer, whose music underpinned the Oscar-winning Holocaust documentary The Long Way Home. Much of his soundtrack work (including music composed for the Kamikaze Ground Crew’s The Comedy of Errors) can be found on his 2004 Tzadik records release, Dimly Lit: Collected Soundtracks 1996-2002.

Peter Apfelbaum
Berkeley native Apfelbaum was only a senior in high school when he formed his first Hieroglyphics Ensemble. Though he has worked with a wide variety of innovative musicians, blending groove, world music, and blazing improvisation, it has been his work under the Hieroglyphics banner that has defined his career. Their album, Signs of Life, “revealed not only a compelling vision of jazz in the present, but with the onset of the millennium, what jazz might yet become” (The Essential Jazz Records, Vol 2; Mansell Publishing, London & New York, 2000).

Steven Bernstein
This year has seen two major projects by trumpeter Steven Bernstein come to fruition: His Millennial Territory Orchestra, which grew out of his work on Robert Altman’s 1994 film Kansas City, released its debut album, MTO Volume 1; and his longtime pop-cum-lounge act Sex Mob put out its sixth album, Sexotica. Besides serving as a sideman to artists as diverse as Sting, David Murray, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, arranging horn charts and composing film scores, Bernstein also has three phenomenal albums in Tzadik Records’ “Radical Jewish Culture” series to his credit: Disapora Blues, Diaspora Soul, and Diaspora Hollywood.

Noah Bless
After receiving his BA degree in Classical and Jazz Performance from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, trombonist Noah Bless moved to New York in 1990. He hit the Latin and Big Band scene, touring with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Willie Colon, Eddie Palmieri, the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, and Tito Puente, while taking hometown gigs with the Vanguard Orchestra, the Latin Legends Band, and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.

Marcus Rojas
It’s rare to find a tuba player who reaches beyond orchestral work. As a result of his versatility, Marcus Rojas has played with reggae legends Sly and Robbie, jazz great Lionel Hampton, industrial rockers Foetus, and the American Symphony Orchestra. He’s been a regular sideman with Henry Threadgill, and played regularly with downtown luminary John Zorn and with Steven Bernstein and guitarist Tronzo in the trio Spanish Fly.

Kenny Wollesen
Drummer Kenny Wollesen has manned the sticks for an astonishing variety of acclaimed musicians. He’s lent his loping rock beat to Tom Waits, Sean Lennon, and Norah Jones; and he swings with the best jazz musicians, including Bill Frisell, John Zorn, and Myra Melford (appearing 11/4). A Bay Area native, he is now a fixture on the downtown jazz scene in New York as a founding member of the New Klezmer Trio, with his band The Wollesens, and as a very busy session and club drummer.

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.