“Alive! wasn’t the first top-flight all-women combo in jazz. Going back to at least the 1940s, when the International Sweethearts of Rhythm earned the respect of their male peers and discerning audiences, excellent female musicians have come together to swing and improvise. But the women in Alive!, who mark the 40th anniversary of the band’s founding with a reunion concert Friday at Freight & Salvage, boldly trod onto new territory when they came together in the mid-1970s.
Featuring vocalist Rhiannon, percussionist Carolyn Brandy, bassist/cellist Susanne DiVincenza, drummer Barbara Borden and the late pianist Janet Small (who passed away in 2010), Alive! captured jazz’s zeitgeist with a repertoire focusing on original compositions. Inspired by Brandy’s rapidly accelerating passion for Afro-Cuban rituals and rhythms, the band incorporated Cuban grooves at a time when more jazz musicians were exploring Caribbean cultural currents. The inimitable Tammy Hall, who can often be found accompanying the region’s best jazz singers, is the band’s new pianist.
“We really had a big interest in doing our own material,” says Brandy, who has lived in San Leandro for the past two decades. “That was a strong point. Janet Small was an excellent writer. I wrote quite a few songs as well. We were very interested in being accepted as a jazz ensemble, so did jazz standards too. We rehearsed a lot and were really committed to each other, something that you don’t find that much these days. We still cover a lot of ground. For this gig we’ll be doing a lot of originals, Stevie Wonder’s ‘The Secret Life of Plants,’ some blues, some gospel, some out tunes, and some bebop, like ‘Donna Lee.’”“