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SLO Symphony musicians enjoy the connection

click to enlarge FEELING THE MAGIC :  The SLO Symphony celebrates its 50th year with a New Year’s Eve Winter Pops Concert at the PAC on Dec. 31. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PATTY THAYER
  • FEELING THE MAGIC : The SLO Symphony celebrates its 50th year with a New Year’s Eve Winter Pops Concert at the PAC on Dec. 31.

What’s fun about playing in the SLO Symphony is that so many of us know people in the audience. You can feel the magic that happens, and it’s even more special because you know people in the audience,” said violinist Pam Dassenko, co-concertmaster of the orchestra that’s celebrating its 50th season.

Like many of the Symphony’s musicians, she’s been part of the group for decades, playing her first concert in 1987 the day before the birth of her daughter Alexandra (who’s now a 23-year-old cello player who still loves Brahms!).

“We get to play really great music, but also the people in the orchestra become family. You see them every week; they’re a wonderful collection of people,” Dassenko said. “Our conductor, Michael [Nowak], is great at getting the best from us. The whole is certainly greater than the sum of the parts! It’s really cool in the last few years, with more and more young people from the Youth Symphony playing with us.”

SLO native Patty Manion has been playing violin with the Symphony for more than 35 years, joining in 1974 when she was a student of Cliff Swanson’s at Cal Poly.

“I must say he was really the reason I am still playing my violin today!” she said.

She also enjoys working with Nowak: “We loved him from the get-go. He had so many ideas, he was so motivated and loved music so much.” Nowak expanded the musicians’ education, bringing in teachers and guest artists, and expanded the concert venues as well, including Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House.

“Just coming together every week with all the great people in the orchestra and playing wonderful music is amazing. I’m very grateful to the staff, fellow musicians, technicians, volunteers, and especially the people who come to hear us play. Bravo!” Manion said.

Dawna Davies started out playing oboe with the Youth Symphony and has been playing with the SLO Symphony for 19 years.

“I nervously auditioned for Mike Nowak, and then was thrilled to be accepted as second oboe, next to my former oboe teacher, first chair Wayne Asbury,” Davies said. “I stay because I continue to be in awe of the sound we make.”

Sitting in the middle of the orchestra, she’s got the best surround-sound seat in the PAC!

Davies plays oboe “because it was the easiest instrument to carry on the mile walk home from the bus stop every day to our family farm. No one else played it at SLO Junior High or SLO High. It served me well.”

Like the other musicians, Davies has some special memories: walking through the soaring halls of the Sydney Opera House, a cruise around New York harbor after the Symphony’s Carnegie Hall performance, frank conversations with former mentor musicians who are now close friends. She also makes reference (without any juicy details) to the skit nights the orchestra puts together at the end of most seasons.

The SLO Symphony presents its first-ever gala New Year’s Eve concert on Friday, Dec. 31, at 7:30 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center in SLO, featuring a winter Pops concert complete with a guest conductor for “Auld Lang Syne” at 9 p.m. Tickets range from $25 to $55, available at or by calling 756-2787.

2010’s best recordings—and more

Noticing that a lot of lists of top recordings of the year have a definite East Coast bias, New Times decided to ask some local music experts what they’ve liked—and the volunteer program hosts and music experts at KCBX Public Radio have some ideas to share.

Neal Losey, host of Morning Cup of Jazz on weekday mornings, Night Train and Evening Blues on Saturday evenings, and Soul Patrol on Tuesday evenings on KCPR, said, “There were a lot of great soul and R&B releases that came out in 2010, surprisingly. Many of them flew under the radar. There were excellent albums by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Calvin Richardson, Eli “Paperboy” Reed, and more. There has been a wonderful resurgence in real soul sounds, complete with good lyrics, great horns, dynamic band leaders, and all the things you might expect from classic soul of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

“Southern California singer Aloe Blacc is a great new addition to that scene with his 2010 release Good Things. He captures the classic sounds of people like Bill Withers, but puts just enough of a twist on them to make them fit in today. These songs are strong musically and lyrically, something that fans of classic ’70s soul as well as today’s listeners of R&B and even indie rock could enjoy.” Thanks, Neal!

Jimmy Gonzales, host of Ritmo y Sabor at 10 p.m. on Friday nights, recommends his 2010 salsa and Latin jazz favorites: Susie Hansen, Representante de la Salsa, the best recording yet for L.A. salsa violinist Susie Hansen; Chucho Valdes and the Afro Cuban messengers, Chucho’s Steps—if you dig your jazz Latin style, this is the recording to have; Annette A. Aguilar and Stringbeans, The Day Waits for Nobody—master conguera Annette A. Aguilar’s latest is a fantastic mix of salsa and Brazilian tunes; Mambo Legends Orchestra, Watch Out! Ten Cuidao!—the Tito Puente band without the late Tito; and any re-release from the Fania label, but especially Joe Cuba, El Alcalde del Barrio, Latin soul at its finest from ’60s and ’70s New York barrios.” Que sabor, Jimmy!

Rick Matthews, host of Freedom Jazz Dance on Saturdays at noon, recommends the three-volume Radiolarians, by Modeski, Martin, and Wood. “It’s very inventive and wide-ranging. They pay attention to contemporary music while respecting tradition. Music can break through all barriers if you let it,” Matthews said. He also recommends Herbie Hancock’s latest, The Imagine Project, which reaches across the boundaries between jazz and international pop. Pianist Vijay Iyer’s Solo is another recommendation from Matthews, with beautiful, inventive playing of material from Michael Jackson to Duke Ellington to improv.

Janelle Younger, host of Caravan 9, a world music dance party on Fridays at 9 p.m., recommends Razia Said’s Zebu Nation. “Music with a message often faces an uphill battle, fighting the downhill drag of a heavy subject,” Younger said. “Razia Said infuses a weighty topic with air and light on Zebu Nation, which addresses the wholesale destruction caused by slash-and-burn agriculture in her home country of Madagascar. Songs like ‘Omama,’ which she wrote as a child for her grandmother, illustrate her deep roots in the Malagasy soil. Malagasy music is known for its complex polyrhythms overlaid with lilting melodies, both employed to great effect on Zebu Nation. It’s a uniquely listenable album, some songs danceable, some haunting. And with the addition of the word ‘zebu’ to your vocabulary, you’ve gained a high-points Scrabble word. A zebu is a type of humped cattle used as the basis of Malagasy economy.” Thanks, Janelle!

Fred Friedman, host of Jazz Liner Notes on Thursday nights at 10 p.m., has this to say about his favorite recordings and live performances from 2010: “Pat Metheny—Orchestrion. This is a solo recording from Pat Metheny where he plays a slew of instruments using electromechanical devices in some mysterious way. The CD is very good, but I saw him perform Orchestrion at Campbell Hall at UCSB, and the phenomenal live performance brought the music to life.

“Ray Charles—Genius+Soul=Jazz. This is a great value: Four LPs on two CDs for the price of one CD. The title album is from 1961 and the other three are from the 1970s. This is a jazz album, with Ray on organ, big band, and great arrangements.

“Bill Frisell—Beautiful Dreamers. You never know what to expect from Bill Frisell. You just know it will be great listening. This is a trio recording of originals and covers, another classic.

“Zuill Bailey—Bach Cello Suites. This CD has been at the top of the classical music charts for weeks. However, the San Luis Obispo Symphony presented Zuill Bailey at a home concert playing all six suites from memory, in reverse order. Each suite was played at a different location in the home. This was one of the most amazing musical events I have ever witnessed.

“Vijay Iyer—Solo. Vijay Iyer is one of the most creative jazz musicians on the scene today. His trio recording from last year, Historicity, was one of my favorites of 2009, and he continues on with this solo release.

How Many Roads: Black America Sings Bob Dylan. Not just another collection of Bob Dylan covers, but an eclectic mix. The Persuasions, Nina Simone, Howard Tate, the Isley Brothers, and Solomon Burke are a few of the artists covering Dylan here. A little inconsistent at times, but the great ones make it worthwhile.

“John McLaughlin and Chick Corea—Five Peace Band. A two-disc live recording of this all-star band. The other three band members are Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, and Vinnie Colaiuta, each one a headliner in his own right. The concert at UCSB was a tour de force that was exciting to attend,” Friedman says. Thank you, Fred and KCBX!

My personal favorite of the year is Los Osos-based singer/songwriter/guitarist David Lynch’s I Can See Sound. It’s fun, funny, intimate, heartfelt, and just plain enjoyable.

click to enlarge SINGING AND PLAYING :  Valerie Johnson (pictured) and Al B Blue join musical forces for a Songwriters at Play showcase on Dec. 30 at the Porch. - PHOTO COURTESY OF VALERIE JOHNSON
  • SINGING AND PLAYING : Valerie Johnson (pictured) and Al B Blue join musical forces for a Songwriters at Play showcase on Dec. 30 at the Porch.

More music …

Songwriters at Play’s last showcase of the year features blues vocalist Valerie Johnson and guitarist Al B Blue at the Porch in Santa Margarita from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 30. Johnson has toured as lead singer with Big Brother and the Holding Company, the band that Janis Joplin made famous, and Blue has played with Afro-funk band Big Black & the Congregation, as well as toured with Curtis Mayfield.

Here’s a New Year’s Eve party that missed last week’s rundown. “Swingin’ the New Year”—swing dancing, that is!—makes an enjoyable, active way to close out 2010 and feel your best for 2011. Joey Five & Dimes Blues Review dishes up some tasty swing tunes at the Clubhouse (740 Foothill, SLO, 548-8500, on Friday, Dec. 31, from 7 to 11 p.m. The cover’s $10 at the door.

click to enlarge LOCAL LEGENDS :  Songs of the past come to life at “The Best of the Original Legends Series,” a fundraiser for Nipomo High drama scholarships Dec. 31-Jan. 15 at the Clark Center. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MARY MESERVE-MILLER
  • LOCAL LEGENDS : Songs of the past come to life at “The Best of the Original Legends Series,” a fundraiser for Nipomo High drama scholarships Dec. 31-Jan. 15 at the Clark Center.

And don’t forget the Best of the Original Legends Series, a fundraiser for scholarships for the Nipomo High School Drama Department. Writer, producer, and co-director Mary Meserve-Miller is donating her services to support the young’uns, some of whom also have parts in the performance. This music and dance extravaganza features hits from Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Ray Charles, all performed by some of our own local legends. This best-of show runs from Friday, Dec. 31, to Saturday, Jan. 15, at the Clark Center in Arroyo Grande. Tickets are $35 adults, $20 students; call 489-9444 or visit

Get your New Year’s resolutions flowing with the Bluz Dogz’ jammin’ original tunes and groovin’ covers on Saturday, Jan. 1, at 8 p.m. at the Fuel Dock on Main Street in Morro Bay.

click to enlarge BLOWN AWAY :  Saxophone great Red Holloway kicks off the 20th Famous Jazz Artist series in Cambria on Jan. 2. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • BLOWN AWAY : Saxophone great Red Holloway kicks off the 20th Famous Jazz Artist series in Cambria on Jan. 2.

Local jazz fans sure are happy that world-renowned saxophone great Red Holloway chooses to make his home here in SLO County. Your chance to hear his incredible jazz/blues and humorous vocalizing for yourself comes at the next Famous Jazz Artist series at the Hamlet in Cambria on Sunday, Jan. 2, the 20th time he’s opened the year’s concert season at the Hamlet. He’ll be joined by Art Hillary on piano, Richard Reid on bass, and Damion Reid on drums. Vibraphonist Charlie Shoemake and vocalist Sandi Shoemake, the series co-producers, will also be on hand, for shows at 4 p.m. ($15) and 7:15 p.m. ($12), or catch them both for $20. Call 927-0567 for reservations.

SHADES OF BONNIE :  Paso Robles-based Shades of Gray is just one of the performers honoring the music of Bonnie Raitt at the Steynberg Gallery Jan. 4. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SHADES OF GRAY
  • SHADES OF BONNIE : Paso Robles-based Shades of Gray is just one of the performers honoring the music of Bonnie Raitt at the Steynberg Gallery Jan. 4.

Songwriters at Play celebrates the wide-ranging music of Bonnie Raitt with a special tribute showcase at the Steynberg Gallery (1531 Monterey St., SLO, 547-0278). Musicians include Paso Robles-based Shades of Gray with vocalist Audrey Gray Arellano, father-and-son bluesmen Billy and Charlie Foppiano, Kat Edmondson of Banshee in the Kitchen, Melody Klemin, Gary Garrett, Steve Bernal, Raeme Miner, and Ted Waterhouse. The show on Tuesday, Jan. 4, starts at 6:30 p.m., with a $5 cover.

What does the word “zongo” bring to mind? Hmmmm … it’s certainly all good, and sort of zingy. Our own Zongo All-Stars discovered another Zongo band that just happens to be playing on New Year’s at Slim’s in San Francisco. They’re a 13-piece Afrobeat band called Zongo Junction, from Brooklyn, N.Y., touring with their friends Turkuaz, an 11-piece funk band also from Brooklyn. Here’s the great news: They’re all joining together for a local Zongofest at SLO Brew on Wednesday, Jan. 5. Sounds like a great way to burn off some holiday calories on the dance floor!

Contributing writer Kathy Johnston is relieved to know Glen Starkey is back next week. Welcome him at [email protected].


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