Although he looks like your average scraggly native, Jacob Elijah Aginsky is one of the more dynamic young figures on the local jazz circuit, a self-described "cheerleader" for a scene that many have written off as moribund. When asked, the pianist insists that the Bay Area is still packed with a vibrant pool of talent, and that the music itself is vital and evolving. He uses his own career as an example -- Aginsky has released five solo albums in as many years and plays in over a dozen groups, ranging from the jazz-funk ensemble Mingus Amungus to such Brazilian bands as Vivendo de Pão and Boca do Rio to his own straight-ahead jazz ensembles. Recently, he's embraced the rapidly expanding jazz-electronica scene, providing live accompaniment for trip hop and DJ acts and forming the experimental band Subnautic, implementing a musical fusion that he believes is an important step in the evolution of jazz.
In many ways, Aginsky represents the full circle of the Bay Area's musical heritage. He grew up in a culture-conscious bohemian family, where folk and jazz were breathed in like oxygen. (Full disclosure: Aginsky's brother, Akim, is a contributing photographer for SF Weekly.) Jacob's father, Yasha Aginsky, was a documentary filmmaker who took his kids on cross-country trips to meet such folk and blues legends as Elizabeth Cotton and Dewey Balfa (both were featured in Yasha's 1980 film series, Homemade American Music). At the same time, the Aginskys' Bernal Heights home often served as a salon for visiting artists like jazz musician Don Cherry and string-band folklorist Mike Seeger.
Jacob's first formal music training was with a family friend, pianist Randy Craig, best-known for his work with the Pickle Family Circus and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. One night at a dinner party, Craig noticed 6-year-old Jacob's remarkable ear for melodies, and offered to give him lessons. Unfortunately, Aginsky's tutoring was interrupted when his family moved to Paris in the late '70s. The young prodigy wasn't able to keep up with his music lessons in France ("I was too busy trying to learn the language!"), but he was further exposed to the classic jazz and Gypsy music his parents enjoyed.
When his family returned to the Bay Area in the early '80s, the preteen Aginsky found himself challenged by a neighborhood that had changed radically. "I came back and was totally French, with this very 'Pierre' accent: 'Weel you play weez me?' It was terrible! But by then Bernal Heights had become predominantly black, Latino, and Filipino, so I relearned English, speaking in kind of a hip hop context."
Aginsky, who describes himself as a "local boy, through and through," also expanded his musical vocabulary via the multicultural filters of the Bay Area. As a teen he played in a variety of punk and funk bands, while at the same time gravitating toward the urban go-go and hip hop sounds that were bubbling up at the time. He enrolled in the prestigious San Francisco Conservatory of Music, but attended for less than a year, when his free-ranging interests ran headlong into the school's rigorous classical regimen.
"I got booted -- or rather, they suggested that I leave -- for soloing over Bach's Prelude in C Major," recalls Aginsky, shrugging and smiling. "I was 12 years old and thought it sounded cool, but my teacher would slap my hand and say I wasn't supposed to do that. It's ironic, though. Since then I've read a bunch of books about Bach, and I think he would have loved it. He was a huge improviser! All of the toccatas were just him improvising and someone else madly scribbling the music down."
Aginsky says that he regrets never learning how to sight-read music, but that he still draws on the rich elegance of classical and Baroque composers he studied as a child. To him, classical and jazz are twin sides of the same coin -- music in its purest form. "There's two ways you can approach it: the classical, correct, analytical way, and then the liberal, emotional, feeling way. They're both valid, but I've always been more interested in communication than in what is technically right."
Currently, it's hard for young composers like Aginsky to break into the big time, what with small clubs closing, larger venues gearing toward national acts, radio stations narrowing their formats, and major labels sticking with established artists. For this generation of jazz musicians, concert halls are being replaced by warehouse raves and private parties, as electronica and turntablist sessions become the place where jazz exploration lives on. Aginsky says this new sound also fits into his allegiance with the historically mellow Bay Area vibe.
"There's a big East Coast/West Coast division in all styles of music -- that's been true in jazz and pop, hip hop and electronica. The East Coast style has always been aggressive and intense, while the West Coast is typically about ambient soundscapes; it's more emotional than intellectual. Personally, I've always been drawn to the downtempo style, and now I'm trying to fuse electronic music and jazz in a way that upholds that tradition."
During the dot-com boom, Aginsky discovered the unexpected pleasure of working electronic shows, mainly in the "chill-out rooms" where rave dancers went for a break from the loud, pounding techno beats. "I spent all of these years training to be a fully qualified jazz musician, but then I started getting bored by all these gigs where someone would tell you to play just like Bud Powell or Art Tatum," he says. "Recently the most exciting shows I've done have been just me and a DJ playing together at a rave, with thousands of people dancing. You can't really call it jazz, but musically it's tremendously rewarding -- it's some of the most exciting and meaningful work I've done."
After performing with local DJs Andrew Jervis (of Ubiquity Records) and Cut Creator (on Gretchen Lieberum's self-titled trip hop album), Aginsky went on to fully explore his fascination with electronic music by recording the new Subnautic album, Bay Station, which is about to be released on his own Aginsky Productions label. On the record, Aginsky plays harmony-drenched parts on synthesizers and vintage Hammond and Rhodes organs, backed by loping acoustic bass and terse, crackling snare drums -- a laid-back space-out style that connects the sophisticated fusion of '70s bands like LA Express with the more textured approach of modern ambient music. There's also a hefty dose of playfulness and humor, as heard on songs such as "Train to Baraga," which toys with the linguistic melodies of international shortwave broadcasts, and "Burnt Sun," which includes a recitation from the French poet Baudelaire. Perhaps the most controversial track is "Tight," which uses an artificial-voice program to deliver a series of insincere Barry White-esque come-ons. "Some people thought it was too silly," confesses Aginsky. "But what can I say? It still makes me laugh every time I hear it. It's perfect for imparting the complete phoniness of the pickup line."
For Aginsky, part of the luxury of being an independent artist is that he can indulge in whimsies and new musical ideas, without the fear of a major-label marketing department breathing down his neck. Accordingly, his work has been all over the map, reflecting his experience in countless small ensembles and different styles. This breadth is best heard on 2000's Jacob Aginsky Trio album Travelogue, which opens with a pair of abrasive hard bop/free jazz instrumentals, then retraces its steps through mellower terrain, and finally closes with a soft, Brazilian-tinged number called "Mulher Brasileira."
On all his albums, Aginsky's approach is multitiered, wedding punchy rhythmic attacks to sweeping harmonic flourishes and deft quotes of classic jazz pianists such as Bill Evans and Abdullah Ibrahim. His music also features densely layered improvisational passages that recall lush romantic composers like Bach and Beethoven. Tending to get lost in the moment, Aginsky will occasionally find himself quoting show tunes or pop songs, often without realizing it. On "Chateldon, Testify," which opens the recently released Live, In Solo Concert, the pianist set out to pay homage to the driving style of Charles Mingus' famous '50s album Mingus Ah Um, but ultimately wandered into the present day.
"There's this moment on the first track where I listened back and heard that I had been quoting that Dave Matthews song, 'Crash Into Me,' without even thinking of it," Aginsky says. "I get busted for stuff like that all the time, but I can't help it; if I'm thinking 'Pop Goes the Weasel,' I'll have to work it into what I'm playing. For me it's about having creative integrity and finding the joy and musicality in each and every performance, infusing your whole spirit into your playing and improvisation."
Even after touring across the country and abroad, one of Aginsky's favorite venues remains La Note. Any number of notable local musicians -- ranging from trad bassist Marcus Shelby to swing guitarist Will Bernard -- may join him at the bistro, although Aginsky is equally at ease filling the room with his soft solo musings. Part of the attraction, along with bartering for his breakfast, is his familiarity with the restaurant's instrument, which Aginsky donated when the Berkeley Jazz School moved out of La Note's building and took its own ivories away.
"It's the same piano I learned to play on when I was 5, given to my family by my father's mother, who was a leader of the Communist Party in Hollywood, smack in the middle of the McCarthy era," says Aginsky, recalling that, like him, the piano has seen its share of the Bay Area's unique cultural history. "It needs a little work, but it has such a sweet and gentle disposition."