If there was one moment that captured the giddy optimism of Oakland's emergence as a cultural powerhouse it was the opening of Duende in January 2013. The brainchild of esteemed Oliveto chef Paul Canales, the Uptown eatery paired his Basque-inflected menu with his love of edgy jazz and new music, presented in a small performance space upstairs from the restaurant's informal bodega and wine bar.
In a coup that embodied Oakland's ability to draw visionaries from out of town, Canales brought in Swiss-born impresario Rocco Somazzi as a general manager and to book music for the room, coaxing him from Los Angeles where he had earned an international reputation with a series of venues and the Angel City Jazz Festival. Somazzi started by presenting music a few nights a week, but by the end of the first year Duende was going full throttle, presenting an amazing array of Bay Area and touring artists from New York and even Europe five or six nights a week.
Far too many journalists are swooping into the East Bay these days and tossing around clichés that cast Oakland as Brooklyn to San Francisco's Manhattan, but the musical offerings on tap at Duende imbue the venue with the vibe of a prime Park Slope listening room, minus the dreaded hipsters. Taking in stirring sets by the likes of legendary pianist Steve Kuhn, alto sax great Oliver Lake, and bassist Todd Sickafoose's Tiny Resistors, it all seemed too good to last.
Turns out, it was.
Duende's music policy turns out to have been unsustainable, and Somazzi is leaving the restaurant. He's already on the lookout for a new room to present music, possibly within a stone's throw of Duende, which is going to scale back to presenting music three nights a week. Canales is quick to point out that the parting of ways has nothing to do with artistic differences. The chef created the venue so he could see his musician friends perform without having to rush out of work early.
"You should not have a different experience than what you had before," Canales says. "We'll continue to program great music, a lot of the same people. Is there an audience for six nights a week? The numbers don't prove that out. There is an audience for two to three nights. That's just basic business."
One sign that Somazzi had bitten off more than he could chew is that his responsibilities have been divided between a team of people. Canales has enlisted Derk Richardson, editor of the award-winning travel magazine Afar and a longtime KPFA-FM disc jockey, to coordinate the music with input from drummer Scott Amendola (who's been booking Wednesdays) and bar manager Troy Bayless.
Zane Fiala is also going to be involved in booking music, but he's taking over Somazzi's primary responsibilities as general manager of the restaurant. Given that Somazzi was working himself into exhaustion at Duende while trying to keep successive incarnations of his Los Angeles club Rocco's afloat, his disappointment is leavened with some relief.
"That's something I can feel right now, having been relieved of some responsibilities," Somazzi says. "I was overworked and a bit stressed out. The music was always meant to be a secondary activity, and of course it does involve a lot of work. With the music growing, there's the question of whether that affected my performance."
While Canales doesn't take issue with the artists Somazzi presented, he says he is looking to broaden Duende's musical offerings beyond jazz and improvised music (and Teatro Flamenco's monthly showcase). Somazzi has the room booked through June 22, including pianist Joel Forrester and saxophonist Phillip Johnston (a duo distilled from the Microscopic Septet) on June 15, and Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii's Orchestra Oakland on June 18.
Somazzi concludes his tenure at Duende with a four-night run by Thumbscrew opening on June 19. A rambunctious New York trio featuring bass virtuoso Michael Formanek, Red Baraat drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and guitarist Mary Halvorson, a rapidly rising star who's forged creative alliances with many of jazz's most adventurous improvisers, the band recently released an eponymous album on Cuneiform. Continuing a practice that's contributed to Duende's ascendance as the Bay Area's most exciting jazz club, the trio will be joined by special guests each night, including saxophonist James Fei on June 19 and clarinetist Ben Goldberg on June 21 (other guests tba).
Duende may well end up presenting music six or seven nights a week down the road, but will be managed on a tighter budget. Because the restaurant essentially subsidizes the performance space, the music doesn't need to generate income for Duende, but it can't operate in the red either.
"The original idea was to be more community based than it got to be," says Derk Richardson, who was involved in all the initial brainstorming and discussions with Canales when Duende was on the drawing board. "I think part of what made the music so great is that Rocco had all these connections through L.A. and Angel City. All of the sudden all these international caliber people wanted to come through. It can still be a place for those people to play, but it probably grew too fast to be viable."
Contact Andrew Gilbert at firstname.lastname@example.org.