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SF Weekly Music Awards 2003

Americana DJ/Selector/Turntablist Electronic/Electro Hard Rock/

Metal Hip Hop/Rap Jazz Latin/

International Lifestyle Music New Genre/Beyond Pop Punk Rock/Indie Rock Soul/Funk/ R&B 

If music be the brandy of the damned, then we're drunk off our asses


Page 5 of 11

Zion I

Producer Amp Live and MC Zion met at Atlanta's Morehouse College in the early '90s, where they formed a group with three friends. That group, Metafour, was signed to the illustrious Tommy Boy, though Amp and Zion bowed out before an album could be released, citing creative differences with the label. Since settling in the Bay Area and forming the Zion I duo, they've faced additional business hurdles that have stalled their creative output. Luckily, however, the act has never given up, and to our ultimate enjoyment these collisions of art and business have only fueled its need to connect with a community and avoid making standard-issue hip hop.

The duo's 1999 debut album, Mind Over Matter, polarized people in the underground hip hop community with its use of drum 'n' bass rhythms on some of the songs, turning certain purists off while simultaneously engaging the ear of a diverse electronic-music audience. That album's follow-up, Deep Water Slang V2.0, is an updated version of a record initially delayed for two years due to the collapse of Zion I's former label. But despite the holdup, even these cuts sound fresher than many of the songs stuck in terminal rotation on your favorite commercial hip hop radio station. Over the years, Amp has also come into his own as a skilled beat-maker, contributing to albums from critically acclaimed local artists Goapele and Mystic. These days, relatively free of label drama (Zion I recently released its third full-length, Curb Servin', on Raptivism), this mainstay of local concerts and parties is sounding stronger than ever -- and it's not done by a long shot.


Dave Ellis

Local tenor saxophone player Dave Ellis has taken a fairly circuitous route to his current position as one of the most respected young jazz musicians in the Bay Area. Graduating in 1985 from the same fruitful Berkeley High School program that produced fellow saxophonists Peter Apfelbaum and Joshua Redman and pianist Benny Green, Ellis moved to Boston to further his studies at the Berklee College of Music.

After earning a degree in music production, Ellis returned to the bay and fell in with what was arguably the most important group emerging from the area's new jazz movement, the Charlie Hunter Trio, which teamed the saxophonist with drum powerhouse Jay Lane and seven-string guitar phenom Hunter in a venture that married heady improvisation with propulsive grooves equally influenced by funk and hip hop. The trio's extended residency at the Elbo Room gradually became a standing-room-only affair, bringing jazz to a predominantly young San Francisco audience, likely for the first time since the bebop era. After three acclaimed albums with Hunter, Ellis followed Lane to become one of Bob Weir's Ratdog cohorts in 1996, while also making his debut recording as a leader, Raven, for the Monarch label.

The saxophonist's stints with Ratdog and Grateful Dead related offshoot the Other Ones gave Ellis a freewheeling platform for improvisation and excellent exposure, but his heart remained true to traditional jazz. Today, under the tutelage of mentor and famed Riverside Records producer Orrin Keepnews (who helmed the artist's latest album, State of Mind), Ellis has a chance to develop into one of the finest tenor players of his generation.

Babatunde Lea

If you've ever stopped to dig the regular percussion jam sessions that take place in Golden Gate Park, with congas and bongos and tambourines popping and shaking on a warm afternoon, you owe it to yourself to check out the music of one of the original park jamsters, Babatunde Lea. Lea was 11 years old when he saw Nigerian master percussionist Babatunde Olatunji and his "Drums of Passion." "The drums were speaking straight to my heart," Lea writes on his label's Web site (, "and they've never stopped since." The young drummer had already learned the congas and caught soul acts at New York's famous Apollo Theater before moving west in the late '60s and taking part in the burgeoning jam-session scene in the park. During the '70s, he went on to record with jazz and pop luminaries such as Pharoah Sanders, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, and Van Morrison, before putting out a debut album in 1979 titled Levels of Consciousness. Since then, it's been a long, patient process of honing and refining his sound, which integrates traditional jazz harmonics and chord progressions with native groove. Lea's music is similar to the precise and polished African rhythms that Leon Parker brought to his own and pianist Jacky Terrason's trios during the '90s, but Lea takes it even further in the Afro-Caribbean direction, integrating Latin and Brazilian beats into his tunes. Soul Pools, Lea's new album on Motema, finds him weaving those fat rhythms in and out of chunky horn arrangements and the occasional vocal, with a cast of musicians surrounding him whose combined pedigrees read like a who's who of jazz history.

Married Couple

While most musicians in the local jazz scene tend to be as promiscuous as Vince Neil in a Nevada brothel, hopping from gig to gig with no idea whom they'll be playing with next or even what kind of music they'll be playing, the four people who make up this Married Couple have chosen, as their name implies, a rare kind of fidelity, not only to each other, but also to a kind of music that's rarely heard these days, and even more rarely done well: a mélange of melody that can be seamlessly taken up by any of the players at any given time, as the band drifts from the carefully composed to the completely improvised, never losing sight of the melody, or of each other. Also unusual is the band's instrumentation: Drummer Jason Levis and contrabassist Lisa Mezzacappa provide snappy, quirky rhythms that clearly show pop and classical influences while not veering too close to either, but instead of the usual chordal instrument that one might expect, Married Couple features Jonah Minton on tenor sax and Rob Ewing on trombone. This calls to mind classic '60s ensembles led by Ornette Coleman and Jackie McLean; it frees the band to stretch and pull a tune among the various players without the constraints of the typical "comping" of a piano or guitar. Also thankfully left out are indulgent, interminable solos -- this band enjoys playing together, and the members simply have too much to say as an ensemble to let any one instrument take over for too long. Instead, they bicker back and forth, talk, sing, and work out their shared musical problems like -- well, like any good married couple should.


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