Posted on Sat, Sep. 28, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Musician explores some new turf


What does music from El Cerrito sound like? Come by Yoshi's on Monday night and you might be surprised.

Saxophonist Daniel Plonsey, a longtime participant in the Bay Area's creative music scene, presents his 20-piece band Daniel Popsicle, playing "Music From El Cerrito." The ensemble features a broad swath of some of the region's most interesting musicians, including clarinetist Ben Goldberg, shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) master Philip Gelb, Suki O'Kane on toy percussion, bassist Matthew Sperry, John Schott on National steel guitar, Sarah Willner on Balinese percussion and trombonist Tom Yoder.

The evening centers on the debut of Plonsey's extended work "Wise King Taken by the Foolish One," a piece that blurs the line between composition and improvisation. The concert is presented by Jazz In Flight, the all-volunteer organization that produces the annual Eddie Moore Jazz Festival.

While there's a tongue-in-cheek element to the geographical designation of Plonsey's music, the El Cerrito resident is making a serious point by highlighting his hometown. He notes that El Cerrito is musical terra incognito.

"John Fogerty could sing about being born on the bayou," said Plonsey, 44, referring to Credence Clearwater Revival's lead singer and songwriter. "It made me think that in some ways, El Cerrito lends itself to a little bit of fantasizing in a way that Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley don't. People have a lot of ideas about what Berkeley is and isn't, but El Cerrito can take on whatever I want to put on it."

Being unbound by expectations and conventions is a central component of Plonsey's musical vision. His extended works are mostly composed, but he encourages musicians to add notes and short phrases where they see fit. He doesn't outright reject the term "jazz," but he's clearly feels that it doesn't have much relevance for his music.

"I don't think of myself as not being a jazz musician, but on the other hand, I don't want to be limited by any one genre," said Plonsey, who works for UC Berkeley's astronomy department as a computer administrative assistant. "This isn't classical music, it's not jazz, it's not rock. It's instrumental music of El Cerrito, or northern El Cerrito, actually."

Born in Cleveland, Plonsey studied composition and music with some of the era's most influential figures, including Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and Terry Riley. A composer noted for his ability to incorporate humor, both broad and subtle, into his music, he has received commissions from groups as disparate as Bang on a Can, Santa Cruz New Music Works and the Berkeley Symphony's children's concerts.

While he was deeply involved in running the Berkeley performance space Beanbender's, a noted outpost for experimental music before it closed in the late '90s, in recent years he has raised minicontroversies by arguing against the value of free improvisation as a performance practice.

The music he presents on Monday flows from a post-apocalyptic fantasy scenario in which music emerges from daily life, with community bands playing music written locally. He compares the resulting sound to an amalgam of music by Anthony Braxton, Sun Ra, Indian wedding bands, New Orleans brass bands and numerous other ensembles.

"I guess what really inspired this writing is the fantasy of some people who don't really understand the band tradition getting hold of some instruments," Plonsey said. "They have maybe one or two records to base their music on, and this is what they come up with. I kind of imagine this band playing for events in El Cerrito, and it probably shouldn't be heard too much further than Oakland."