Music

Finding the Lost American JazzBook

All-star ensemble behind new release Taxonomy of Pleasure to appear at Yoshi’s.

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The Lost American Jazzbook went on hiatus after its first album, until joined by vocalist Tammi Brown.
  • The Lost American Jazzbook went on hiatus after its first album, until joined by vocalist Tammi Brown.

The Lost American JazzBook has been rediscovered. Introduced on an eponymous award-winning album in the fall of 2014, the JazzBook was a Bay Area ensemble focusing on original songs by veteran jazz pianist Dan Zemelman and A Traveling Jewish Theater co-founder Albert Greenberg. Sophisticated and gracefully constructed, the tunes were designed to evoke American Songbook standards by the likes of Rodgers and Hart, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Billy Strayhorn, and Johnny Mercer.

While the album won Jazz Vocal Album of the Year honors at the 14th Independent Music Awards, the project faded when vocalist Rose Armin-Hoiland moved on to other pursuits. Enter the brilliant Santa Cruz singer Tammi Brown and Lost American JazzBook's second iteration, Taxonomy of Pleasure, which picks up where the first volume left off.

An all-star cast celebrates the album's release at Yoshi's Wednesday, Aug. 28 when ace bassist Dan Robbins, reed expert Sheldon Brown, Brazilian guitarist Ricardo Peixoto, cellist Joseph Hébert, and drummer Jason Lewis join Brown and Zemelman. Two-time Grammy Award-winning violinist Mads Tolling, who's been part of the project since the beginning, and guitar star Stanley Jordan contribute improvisational fireworks to the JazzBook ensemble as special guests.

Rounding up stellar instrumentalists for the project turned out to be far easier than finding the ideal voice. "We were on hiatus because I didn't have a singer," Greenberg said. He approached Linda Tillery in the extended process of looking for a vocalist, and she put him in touch with Brown, who's been a member of her stylistically encompassing Cultural Heritage Choir for the past six years. "She has those deep gospel roots," Greenberg says. "She's a miracle."

A Bay Area icon, Tillery has played a key role in both deepening and broadening the perspectives several generations of important vocalists, including Rhonda Benin, Zoe Ellis, and Valerie Troutt. Her seamless approach to African-American music emphasizes continuity between idioms, from work songs and spirituals to blues, jazz, soul, and hip-hop. Brown found new possibilities in her voice singing with the Cultural Heritage Choir. "Linda is my musical mentor," she said. "My voice is in so many different genres, it's hard to place me. But she's steered other major projects my way. I love it all."

Brown has been thriving for the past decade in that rarified space 20 feet from stardom. Stanley Jordan, a crossover jazz star since releasing a series of hit Blue Note albums that introduced his remarkably ambidextrous two-handed tapping technique in the mid-1980s, featured her background vocals on his 2008 album State of Nature (Mack Avenue), which earned a Grammy nomination. Lately she's been working with Quincy Jones on a project revisiting the music from his influential 1970s A&M albums. Always open to new musical challenges, she didn't know what to expect when Greenberg approached her.

"He sent some of the material and I fell in love with the music, the lyrics, the voicings. Everything resonated, and I felt I could deliver these songs with some truth and passion," said Brown, who brought Jordan into the project. "When Stanley heard some of the material he was equally impressed and moved. It was one of those situations where I fell in love with song after song."

The project's moniker has led some people to think that its dedicated to obscure material from the American Songbook, but the music is inspired by the popular song tradition. When the band does tackle a piece by an outside composer, they radically reimagine it, like an arrangement of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" set to a slinky groove and interpolated with chord changes from Thelonious Monk's "Evidence."

"I don't want to just imitate," Zemelman says. "'Body and Soul' has been done over and over. If we did 'Body and Soul' we'd have to do it in a way that it's not the same thing again."

Rather than being set down in permanent ink, the JazzBook material continues to evolve. And Greenberg and Zemelman are already working on new songs inspired by Brown's bright, lustrous voice. "She's changing the writing," Greenberg said. "It's a collaboration because Tammi is not just a performer. She's a real artist who just cuts loose, even in rehearsal. A few weeks ago, she'd driven two hours from Santa Cruz. She had a gig the night before and a gig that night in Aptos. She's exhausted, but when she starts singing the heavens open and I just sit there and marvel."  

Aug. 28, 8 p.m., $24-49, Yoshi's, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland, 510-238-9200, Yoshis.com

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