If Jennifer Berezan looks a little lonely on stage at the Freight & Salvage tonight, it’s not a reflection on her band.
Celebrating the release of her new album “End of Desire,” the Canadian- born, Berkeley-based singer/songwriter is performing with a diverse array of musicians, including Julie Wolf on accordion and various keyboards, guitarist Geoff Pearlman, drummer Darren Hahn and bassist Jon Evans, who spends much of his time on the road with Tori Amos.
Throughout the evening, Berezan will be joined by guest vocalists such as Chris Webster, Anthony Costello, David Worm and Riffat Salamat, so there will be no shortage of talent. But for Berezan, even a dozen collaborators is barely a creative quorum.
In recent years, she has gained an avid following with her sprawling multimedia happenings “Praises for the World,” new age ritual events that can involve nearly 60 musicians, dancers, poets, actors, activists and spiritual leaders. The first one was held at Oakland’s Scottish Rite Temple in 2000, drawing hundreds of people to experience prayerful incantations and creative celebrations.
The productions staged at the temple in 2003 were filmed and recently released on DVD, featuring guest artists such as Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem, Olympia Dukakis, Eve Ensler, Wilma Mankiller, Linda Tillery, Patti Cathcart (of Tuck and Patti fame) and Terry Sendgraff’s Aerial Dancers.
In April, Berezan staged “Praises” in Atlanta, and there’s interest in taking the spiritually charged event to New York City.
“We had no rehearsal time,” Berezan says between sips of chilled lichi tea. “People were flying in from all over the place. We were putting up these shows in about two days, when normally you’d have a couple of weeks for something of that scale. That made it really exciting. There was an improvisational aspect to it. Most of these people have huge careers and could bring down a house all night long, and here they were given eight minutes to make their statement.”
“End of Desire” is Berezan’s first singer/songwriter project in seven years. In getting back to her solo career, she’s making her statements in concise, rhythmically compelling story-driven songs often marked by longing and nostalgia. Her warm, smoky voice and conversationally poetic lyrics turn each piece into an open-ended quest. In much the same way that her songs invite listeners in, she draws on a plethora of musical styles, weaving together folk, rock, jazz and various chant traditions.
“This is really my origin, being a singer/songwriter,” Berezan says. “Playing songs that are four or five minutes long, you’re thinking totally differently, building a story really quickly, whereas in a show that lasts two hours it’s about building energy in long arcs. ‘Praises for the World’ is a giant theatrical production with huge amounts of people. But then, even making this album was very collaborative.”
Working with Evans and Julia Wolf, Berezan set out to record songs she’d been honing over the years. They recruited a wide range of Bay Area artists, such as jazz drummer Scott Amendola, mandolin player Mike Marshall, and Nina Gerber on slide guitar, as well as Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls and Canadia.
Evans, a bassist who has performed widely in jazz contexts and with numerous vocalists, notes that Berezan has a gift for involving other musicians in her music.
“There’s a different sensibility in her music that sets it apart from many other singer/songwriters,” says Evans, who co-produced the album with Berezan and Wolf at his Berkeley studio, San Pablo Recorders. “It’s not all focused inward. There’s a larger picture involved in most of her songs. She’s someone who’s very open to having musicians around to help broaden the story through their musical choices. Many singer/songwriters get very nervous about choices like that.”
Berezan came to the Bay Area seeking community. Born and raised in Calgary, she moved to Oakland in the mid-1980s to do graduate work at Holy Names College. She was already involved in music when she arrived in California, but was soon inspired by the East Bay’s roiling intersection of music, politics and spiritual seeking.
“I did a lot of benefits and gigs at bookstores and little cafes that aren’t around anymore,” she recalls. “I did a lot of events around Latin American solidarity for Nicaragua and El Salvador, a lot of performances at La Peña. The multiculturalism here was really new to me, and creatively I was ecstatic to be close to all that. Early on, I started to be asked to play at events that were political but had some spiritual aspects to them, like a spiral dance, neo-pagan rituals or Buddhist events. I was really drawn to those ways of understanding and seeing the power of music in that context.”
Berezan’s debut recording, 1988’s “In the Eye of the Storm,” introduced her deft rhythm-guitar work and eclectic but decidedly Americana sound. Her harder edged album “Borderlines” was nominated for a 1993 NAIRD award (the independent record industry’s Grammy).
By the mid-‘90s, her involvement in meditation and chanting surfaced in “She Carries Me,” which featured a recitation by Olympia Dukakis and fiddle work by Darol Anger.
Berezan’s interest in Buddhism deeply informed her 1997 album “Refuge,” but it was her 2000 devotional session “Mother of Us All,” recorded in a 6,000- year-old underground chamber at the Hypogeum of Hal Safleini in Malta that paved the way for the interfaith outpouring on “Praises for the World.”
She may not be surrounded by monks and aerial dancers when she’s performing songs from “End of Desire” at Freight & Salvage, but Berezan brings the same commitment to social justice and passion for emotional truth to her personal songs as she does to her communal gatherings.
Jennifer Berezan performs at 8 tonight, Freight & Salvage, 1111 Addison St. Berkeley. $19.50-$20.50. (510) 548-1761, www.thefreight.org.
E-mail comments to Andrew Gilbert.