| By Andrew Gilbert
Even if Oakland’s May coronation as “the most exciting city in America” smacks of headline-seeking hyperbole, the real estate website Movoto is onto something serious. Last year The New York Times singled out the burgeoning Uptown district while naming Oakland fifth in a list of 25 top destinations, noting that “the city’s ever more sophisticated restaurants are now being joined by upscale cocktail bars, turning once-gritty Oakland into an increasingly appealing place to be after dark.”
Neither Movoto or the Times got into specifics, but for a case study in everything going right in Oakland, look no further than Duende, the jazz club and Basque-inspired restaurant at Telegraph and 19th in the historic Art Deco building that also houses Flora. Since opening in January, the venture has more than lived up to its considerable promise, earning consistently glowing reviews for its innovative menu while quickly establishing itself as the region’s most important outpost for left-of-center jazz.
The venture couldn’t have better parentage. Duende, an untranslatable Spanish word immortalized in García Lorca’s impressionistic 1933 essay about the soul-baring aesthetic intrinsic to the Gypsy-influenced culture of Andalusia, is a partnership between Paul Canales, the former head chef at Oliveto, and Rocco Somazzi, who spent the last 15 years as Southern California’s most important jazz presenter.
The two men are a study in temperamental contrasts. The Fresno-raised Canales fits comfortably into the alpha chef mold that’s become so familiar via cable television cooking shows. Funny, volatile, and larger than life, he’s a passionate advocate for music and musicians. Canales longed to open up his own joint both for culinary independence and “to have a place for friends to play.” Rather than altruism, he’s quick to note his abiding self-interest in Duende’s music policy. “It’s really hard to leave a restaurant at 9:30 and make it to Yoshi’s. 21 Grand closed. I have so many friends who don’t have a place to play. I just felt like I needed to have music closer.”
Where Canales is feisty and unguarded, the Swiss-born Somazzi is Continental cool and self-possessed, a former philosophy graduate student whose obsession with music is matched by a love of wine. In a freewheeling conversation on a recent sunny afternoon, Canales and Somazzi sat down to talk about their new venture, and the decision to locate the restaurant in Uptown.
“It’s still very small compared to many scenes, but there is a unique energy here that I haven’t seen anywhere else,” says Somazzi, 41, who’s married to Japanese-born pianist Motoko Honda. “There’s a freedom and creative energy where people feel very inspired to do things without constriction.”
“The key word is freedom,” adds Canales, 53. “It’s like a Brooklyn moment here. What I loved about Oakland when I first came here a long time ago and started cooking at Oliveto is that there’s not a set dogma.”
They’re quick to credit the major players who paved the way for Duende in Uptown, particularly Phil Tagami and Len Epstein’s herculean efforts to restore the Fox Theater, and restaurant pioneers like Flora’s Dona Savitsky and Thomas Schnetz. He even gives former Mayor Jerry Brown a shout-out for his efforts to build out the area with condos and apartments.
“What’s unique about here is how the community supports development,” Somazzi says. “I’ve seen many neighborhoods where people start to open clubs and people trickle in, and you have to pull them from outside. Here, there are a lot people interested in what’s happening. We get so many comments, people thanking us for being here, and excited to be part of it.”
Duende has given music lovers plenty to be excited about. At a time when the new SFJAZZ Center and decreasing audiences have pushed Yoshi’s to retreat from its longtime role as Northern California’s premiere jazz venue, Duende has stepped in to provide an essential forum for some of the music’s most creative figures. In the opening month, Duende made its musical mark by hosting guitarist Nels Cline in a four-night residency. Though now best known as a member of Wilco, Cline has been a revered figure in improvised music circles since the 1980s, and presenting his volatile instrumental trio Nels Cline Singers was a booking coup ratified by a consistently packed house.
The club has presented veteran masters on tour, like 75-year-old pianist Steve Kuhn, who cut his teeth with John Coltrane in the early 1960s, and the storied Dutch ensemble ICP (Instant Composers Pool). And it’s also providing a regular perch for Bay Area–based improvisers like drummer Scott Amendola, bassist Todd Sickafoose, and clarinetist Ben Goldberg. In keeping with Canales’s Spanish heritage and the restaurant’s culinary inspiration, Duende also hosts monthly flamenco nights with dance and music.
The music takes place in a rectangular loft above the kitchen, a space that’s open on two sides to the dining area and the bodega, which means there’s a fair amount of sonic bleedover between dining tables and the bandstand. “Most of the time it works, but there are those unpredictable times when you have a group in the bodega talking quietly, and the music comes down and they start laughing,” Somazzi says.
“It can’t be perfect, and it shouldn’t be too perfect,” Canales says.
Every jazz musician hoards a trove of horror stories about playing in restaurants or clubs where the proprietors actively dislike the music and barely tolerate musicians. Like an invigorating balm, Duende offers an antithetical scenario. Indeed, it’s hard to overstate how central music is to Canales’s consciousness in and out of the kitchen.
Drawn to punk and glam rock as a teenager in the 1970s, he found his way to avant-garde jazz and contemporary classical music in college. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, he moved back to California in the mid-1990s to work at Oliveto, helping turn the College Avenue restaurant into one of the Bay Area’s most consistently praised dining establishments. He made sure that it earned a special place in the hearts and stomachs of many Bay Area musicians through specially designed feasts.
When he talks about his evolving sensibility as a chef, Canales cites the contrasting creative arcs of two musical heroes, pianist Bill Evans and trumpeter Miles Davis. Like Isaiah Berlin’s metaphorical hedgehog, Bill Evans is the quintessential player who knew one big thing, the piano trio format. Canales identified much more with Davis, who, like Berlin’s crafty fox, knew many little things and constantly reinvented himself. He also talks about how reading a quote by composer Morton Feldman set him on a two-year journey to discover the essential nature of his pursuit in the kitchen.
“For me it’s about creative expression,” Canales says. “What am I after in cooking? I was after what this is as an experience, not an idea.”
If Canales is the artist seeking essentials, Somazzi is the pragmatist who knows all too well about the daunting odds of launching a successful jazz club.
He arrived in Oakland with a clear picture of the challenges ahead, having acquired an impressive portfolio of music-related ventures down south.
Born and raised in Lugano, the largest Italian-speaking city outside of Italy, Somazzi came by his love of jazz via the festival that regularly brought heavyweight American musicians to the southern Swiss municipality. After studying philosophy in Geneva, he moved to Southern California in 1993 as a student of U.C. Riverside professor Howard K. Wettstein.
While he loved the intellectual discipline, Somazzi decided after three years that he wasn’t cut out for teaching, and decided to follow another interest by enrolling in film school at Los Angeles City College. That stint was short-lived, but it put him in touch with several Southland jazz players. He had checked out LA’s premiere jazz spots, Catalina Bar & Grill and the Jazz Bakery, but the audiences skewed older and he didn’t find the venues inviting.
With far more enthusiasm than wisdom, Somazzi decided to open his own club, an ambition that quickly slammed into the reality of the LA real estate market. At 26, he couldn’t get a loan and landlords wouldn’t take him seriously. Then he got a call from a woman who worked at a failing Italian restaurant in Bel Air. Despite the landlord’s skepticism, he plunged into his first venture, taking over the 5,000-square-foot space by paying the back rent and assuming the lease. Suddenly Somazzi found himself the proprietor of a full-service restaurant and bar, a once-trendy spot with a swanky address that still attracted a regular Hollywood clientele.
“Charlton Heston came up every day to pick up his dinner,” Somazzi says. “Warren Beatty came in every night for drinks. Bruce Willis was a regular. It was pretty strange.”
Rechristened Rocco in Bel Air, the restaurant became LA’s hippest jazz spot, an outpost for the Southland’s vast and underexposed community of jazz artists, while also showcasing improvisers from New York, Chicago, the Bay Area, and Europe. It was a glorious ride, but Somazzi was a one-man show, and after three years he was beyond burned out.
“The business was growing, and I had established a good reputation for booking, but I was completely on my own,” Somazzi says. “I don’t know how I did it. I had never worked in a restaurant before. I had no partners, and it was much harder than I anticipated. I knew for my own sanity I had to get out.”
Herb Alpert and a group of partners took over the club, now named Vibrato, and promptly invested several million dollars in a remodel (Somazzi’s move-in budget was $70,000). He took a few months off, and then plunged back in, opening a new Rocco’s, a bare-bones cafe/performance space on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. The club thrived as a vital outpost for creative music, but after several years its diminishing economic returns had reduced Somazzi to poverty.
“I had no car, no bank account, and I was renting a room in a rat-infested house,” he says. “I was happy. I was presenting music, and had no long-term plans. I could have gone on forever. But then I met my future wife and we started dating. She told me, ‘You can’t live like this.’ If I wanted to have a serious life with her, I needed to get serious and get a real job.”
He took a series of gigs serving at restaurants, and when opportunities arose, Somazzi convinced the owners to present music. He turned Café Metropole, a popular downtown eatery, into an important jazz club, while occasionally booking larger concerts at the 300-seat Barnsdall Gallery Theatre. Ever ambitious, he filled a gaping hole in the Southland’s cultural scene in 2008 when he launched the Angel City Jazz Festival, LA’s first serious jazz festival in decades. It’s an event that he continues to book, and that led to his connection with Canales.
Canales had already collaborated with musicians in creative ways, such as a project with the acclaimed Trio M, pianist Myra Melford, bassist Mark Dresser, and drummer Matt Wilson. “All three of us exchanged musical ideas with Paul and he, in turn, sent us photos of new dishes he was concocting,” Melford writes in the liner notes to the 2012 album The Guest House (Enja Records). “We came up with new music (and he new recipes) based on our exchange.”
In 2010, the Angel City was jazz interacting with other art forms, including video, dance, and food, and though they had never met, Somazzi had heard about Canales from various musicians. He arranged a collaboration between Melford, Canales, and his fellow Oliveto chef Kelsey Bergstrom that turned into a “pretty magical night, the way we managed to integrate food and performance,” Somazzi says. “Paul had a great time. He’s a musician, trying to incorporate musical ideas into his cooking. I think that event showed him the potential, and we decided to stay in touch.”
Oakland has turned out to be the ideal forum for their overlapping creative visions, infusing Uptown with a bracing jolt of raw and honest creativity, a soulful force best described as duende.
Andrew Gilbert is The Monthly’s music critic.
Creative vision: Paul Canales and Rocco Somazzi marry Basque cooking and left-of-center jazz at Uptown’s Duende. Photo by Lori Eeanes.
Catch Scott Amendola (pictured here with Charlie Hunter) at Duende. Photo by Lenny Gonzalez.