Around The Bend

Sax in hand: British musician John Butcher makes his instrument whisper and sing; he brings his original saxophone voice to Beanbender's this Sunday evening.

Beanbender's brings acclaimed improvised-music players to Berkeley.

By John Shiurba

SOMETHING quite amazing has been unfolding in a gutted bank building in downtown Berkeley. A small collective of musicians and music lovers has transformed the big, empty space, now known as the Berkeley Store Gallery, into a performance arena that serves as a home base for the Bay Area's improvised music scene.

The makeshift club was dubbed Beanbender's after a fictional nightspot in the children's book The Snarkout and the Avocado of Death,  by Daniel Pinkwater. Since its formation in March 1995, Beanbender's has hosted weekly concerts featuring an impressive array of internationally acclaimed improvisers from the Bay Area and well beyond. Beanbender's has recently attracted many European players who, primarily for financial reasons, seldom venture to the west coast; AMM, Evan Parker, Fred Frith, and the highly acclaimed British saxophonist John Butcher are among that number.

Bringing these musicians to Beanbender's has cost substantial sums of money, and organizers often have little hope of financial return. The rewards have been the music and the development of a much needed improvised-music hub in the East Bay.

Beanbender's is the brainchild of local musician Dan Plonsey, University of San Francisco professor Bill Hsu, and technical writer Seth Katz. Together they sought to start a different kind of performance space, one that made the enjoyment of music its primary focus. With its homey lighting and friendly, low-key atmosphere, Beanbender's has turned out to be the perfect venue.

"It's very good for quiet, more abstract music," Hsu says of the room. "People tend to really pay attention."

Striving to be as accessible as possible, Beanbender's has kept show times early so that people can use public transportation to travel there and back. Another advantage to the space is its expandability: the room takes on a living-room feel for the smaller shows and more of a concert-hall atmosphere (with additional seating) for the larger shows.

One of the primary reasons for the club's success seems to be its reliance on teamwork; with several people handling the chores of booking, promoting, and managing events, no one person is completely overwhelmed, as was the case several years ago when Rick Rees singlehandedly ran the improv-core series at Olive's. Rees now produces the Transbay Improvised Music Calendar, which lists improvised-music performances at Beanbender's, Hotel Utah's Dark Circle Lounge, and Radio Valencia. The calendar is sponsored by Amoeba Music, which pays for its printing and postage costs, and goes out monthly to everyone on the Beanbender's mailing list. Plonsey, Hsu, and Katz handle the club's booking, management, and door duties.

Another key connection for Beanbender's has been Gino Robair, whose label, Rastascan Records, has lured European improvised-music players to San Francisco and Berkeley by boosting the Bay Area's appreciation for that genre. Robair says the East Bay club is the only local venue that will take a chance on booking European heavyweight improvisers who are relatively obscure in the United States.

Plonsey credits the Internet with helping Beanbender's communicate with musicians abroad and with bolstering the club's event promotions. "I really only realized it when AMM played," Plonsey says. "I got about 100 reservations, 90 of which were by E-mail."

The Internet has served the avant-garde music community well, providing a forum for dissemination of esoteric information that doesn't get much press. Several well-organized and meticulously researched Web sites (see "Improv on the Web," below) contain information such as biographical details on and discographies of virtually every major (and not so major) jazz and free-improv artist. Combined with on-line discussion groups and Usenet newsgroups, the Web has provided a new way to find out about and promote music that is outside the mainstream.

Beanbender's has made significant progress in developing the Bay Area as a viable tour stop for some exciting younger European musicians whose CDs are often distributed on small labels that have limited channels of distribution. This week's concert is a perfect example; it features three heavily lauded players: tuba player Melvyn Poore, drummer Martin Blume, and renowned British saxophonist John Butcher.

In the world of free-improv saxophone music, players using extended techniques to make unusual sounds with the horn are common, but few have established a voice as original as John Butcher's. His saxophone acts as an extension of his own voice as he employs techniques such as growling and flutter-tonguing to make his saxophone talk, sing, cry, whisper, and laugh. What is more impressive is how he has incorporated all of this into a musical language that is both complicated and accessible. It's about time Californians get a chance to see why Butcher is one of the central figures in Europe's avant-garde music scene.

John Butcher, Melvyn Poore, and Martin Blume. June 23, 8 p.m., Beanbender's, 2295 Shattuck, Berk. $10. (510) 528-8440.