Amazing Mike Drop review from All About Jazz

So grateful to Paul Rauch and All About Jazz for about as good a review as anyone who does this could hope for!

A first encounter with saxophonist Michael Zilber in a live setting leaves a very large impression. Enshrouding the marvelous facility and deeply melodic approach to improvisation is “the sound” which allows the listener to receive the music in a soulful way. When that sound and imagination are driven by the post-bop mastery of drummer Mike Clark, illuminating things can and will take place.

Celebrating a ten-year friendship, Zilber and Clark laid down this session in Oakland in 2018 for Sunnyside, pairing them with Bay Area stalwarts Matt Clark on piano and bassist Peter Barshay. The quartet lays into two Zilber originals, and covers ranging from Wayne Shorter to Thelonious Monk and Lennon-McCartney.

No matter the vehicle of song, the session is another opportunity to hear Zilber work his way through the tunes with artistic precision, the objective of beauty clearly leading the way. Beginning with Zilber’s “Barshay Fly” and “Sonny Monk,” the quartet immediately comes off as a group of voices well familiar with each other. That intimacy is there for the listener, moving forward through an interpretation of McCoy Tyner‘s “Passion Dance” and Zilber’s emotive take on Shorter’s rare gem, “Miyako.” Clark’s lovely brush and cymbal work illuminates this rarely-heard Shorter masterpiece.

Clark is well known for his work with luminaries such as Herbie HancockWoody Shaw, and Bobby Hutcherson. Zilber, though in many ways underappreciated, is a talent of that stratosphere in jazz. Looking to the Duke Pearson ballad, “You Know I Care,” the master tenorist passes through the bones of the tune in melancholic, rich tones. Clark offers a lovely, articulate solo, playing through the delicate framework provided by Barshay and Clark. Ballads are the true test of melodic engagement in soloing,

Zilber’s beatific work on ballads in general speaks to his master status in modern jazz. Shifting to soprano, he plays in and through the melody of the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” with Clark’s spacious, musical cymbal and drum work. The piece features intuitive rhythmic dynamics which separate the piece from its traditional framing.

Zilber and Clark in turn have a musical and social dynamic which asks for more down the road. These are two names that can unjustly fly under the radar in the world of modern jazz. Both have the innate ability to elevate a piece of music into something welcoming and special. Mike Drop is a worthy vehicle to introduce you to both.

Paul Rauch/All About Jazz September 3, 2021


New Release on Sunnyside Records: Mike Clark and Michael Zilber “Mike Drop”

Hot off the presses, here we go. My new release, co-led with Drumming giant Mike Clark, on Sunnyside Records of New York, and featuring Bay Area stellar swingers Matt Clark and Peter Barshay.  Done live in-studio in the same room  (no punches or redos) at Oakland’s own 25th Street Recording.  “Seriously swinging free-range jazz” is what we played and is what you get.  As of July 16, the second most added Jazz Record in the country on Jazz Radio.

Really proud of this one, and what a nice way to re-enter the world after the pandemic!

You can check out and get all the tracks here:


Sometimes there are musicians who seem to be fated to collaborate. They can come from different places and, even different generations, but their connection will be immediate and deep. This is the type of relationship that has developed between legendary drummer Mike Clark and stellar saxophonist Michael Zilber. Their friendship and musical cohesiveness can be felt immediately upon hearing their new recording, Mike Drop.

Originally from Northern California, Mike Clark has been one of the most celebrated drummers of his generation. Having made a name through his tenure with Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters, Clark left his home base in the Bay Area in 1979 to pursue opportunities in New York City and beyond. It proved to be the best move of his life, as this allowed him to play with his heroes, the true New York City cats.

Michael Zilber grew up in Vancouver, Canada but always felt deeply connected to New York City, coming from three generations of New Yorkers, including his parents, who met and fell in love in Manhattan. Zilber pursued his musical path in Boston before settling in the Big Apple for almost a decade. In 1992, a teaching opportunity shifted the saxophonist’s attention to California, where he relocated and has been a fixture in the Bay Area jazz scene ever since.

New York City has a natural pull for jazz players and so it was for Zilber, who continued to visit the City regularly, playing gigs and sessions, immersed in that fierce and focused environment. It was during one of these trips that he was introduced to Clark by their mutual friend, Michael Barsimanto. Their appreciation for each other’s skill sets was immediate, as Zilber’s New York City hard driving style fit well with Clark’s impeccably swinging and focused drum approach. Their sessions were also conversational and fun, not to mention a good hang.

In early 2018, Clark was booked to play the San Jose Winter Jazz Festival and capitalized on the opportunity to return to his old stomping grounds in the Bay by finding a number of gigs and clinics. Zilber joined Clark on the San Jose gig and they received a tremendous response. In addition, the booked a week’s worth of gigs with a mutual friend bassist Peter Barshay and the talented pianist Matt Clark.

The situation was so opportune that Zilber suggested getting the quartet into 25th Street Recording in Oakland for an old school recording session, where they eschewed separation for a more live and relaxed feeling. The pieces that the group played were pieces they had played over the previous week, along with a couple of originals and arrangements by Zilber.

The recording begins with Zilber’s ode to their virtuoso bass player, “Barshay Fly,” which takes a bass line Barshay played on a gig as inspiration and creates a grooving piece for the ensembles’ solo flights. Zilber reimagines elements from Sonny Rollins’ iconic solo on “Tune Up” and a four-note motif from Thelonious Monk’s “If I Were a Bell” and a bit of the bridge from “Ruby My Dear” to create “Sonny Monk (If I Were A),” a hard swinging piece that allows for a bit of solo trading between Clark and Zilber. Clark introduces McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance” with an emphatic drum solo, setting the tone for a true quartet workout.

The quartet shows its romantic side on Duke Pearson’s “You Know I Care” with wistful solos from all and Clark’s warm, gauzy brush work. The Beatles are one of Zilber’s passions, as he even leads a Fab Four centered funk band called John & Paul Reimagined. Here Zilber presents his tremendous arrangements of “Blackbird” and “Norwegian Wood,” the former with a bouncing pulse, harmonic reworking and Zilber’s poignant soprano while the latter finds the meditative tune traversing through six keys. These prove to be Clark’s first attempts at playing the Beatles material and he owns them.

Wayne Shorter’s gorgeous “Miyako” is haunting with Zilber’s mournful soprano, Matt Clark’s thoughtful keys and Mike Clark’s sparkling cymbal work. Barshay’s playful arrangement of Monk’s “Monk’s Dream” makes clear the joyous feel the quartet could blossom and provides a showcase for the bassist’s outstanding solo voice. The recording concludes with Rodgers and Hart’s “Falling In Love with Love,” the well-loved standard taken at an infectious up-tempo swing only cementing the quartet’s effervescent character.

The moving performances on Mike Clark and Michael Zilber’s Mike Drop show that kindred spirits can be found no matter the distance. Though both Clark and Zilber came from the West Coast, they found their connection in a love of the serious soul of one of New York City’s distinctive styles: a seriously swinging, free range jazz.


released July 16, 2021

Mike Clark – drums
Michael Zilber – tenor & soprano saxophones
Matt Clark – piano
Peter Barshay – bass

Phree-Range Philosophy

So since I have been posting what I refer to as “free-range” recordings, maybe a brief statement of aesthetics is in order, in case you are wondering what does a term for poultry have to do with recordings?  Let me try to clarify:

Simply, it means having all the musicians in the same room, with NO baffling, NO separaton, NO headphones, just some very good directional microphones in a room conducive to that (Not too live, not too dead) and we all play, just like we would on a gig.  And then, as always, no studio “fixes” (punched in solos or pitch correction) or gating/compression surgery.  Just a touch of reverb added and perhaps a little EQ to adjust for the room, but otherwise what you hear is what we did.  I like this approach so much, since it is honest, and it confirms for me that the endless baffling, gating “fixes”, riding of solo levels, punching in, etc does not do much of anything for acoustic jazz, and can often kill the spontaneity and interaction that is the heart of the jazz I love.

Really, I have not heard modern acoustic jazz recordings that use separate rooms and punches and fixes sound any better, and in so many cases, relying on headphones and on the kindness of engineers to recreate what we did seems misguided to me.  And I have never had a headphone mix feel as good to me as playing live, phoneless,  in the room with my fellow musicians, when it comes to jazz.  Obviously, there are many kinds of music where this makes sense, layered pop productions, situations where musicians can’t be in the same town or there at the same time, and more. And I love great engineers. Some of my best friends are engineers!  However, I do think that, in a variation of “to a hammer everything looks like a nail”, to MOST engineers with all these tools and controls, every recording session looks like an opportunity to “fix and improve on” the original live performance. Frankly, I do not like separation, fixes and “improvements” to acoustic jazz, thinking it generally sounds more sterile and disconnected.  (See Relaxing at Camarillo with Joe Henderson and Chick Corea as an example of overmanaging and separating truly great jazz musicians.) You should be able to hear your favorite jazz group live in performance and have it sound and have them play like what you heard on the recording.  Also, when I play with kindred souls, the best performances we do in the studio are just like live gigs, in the same room, no phones, playing and hearing each other well and in the moment, and those are also many of my favorite jazz recordings (and others, such as Sinatra, etc). Just look at the photos of Coltrane recording Both Directions with his quartet at van Gelder’s…No baffling, no headphones, and somehow, between the room, the microphone and the musicians, it sounds amazing. NOT putting myself in that company, but just increasingly convinced that the best way to hear jazz, even on recording, is by letting them record naturally and unencumbered.   Great engineers set a balance in consultation with the musicians, and essentially that is what you get.  So that is a long version of expressing my feelings on free-range Jazz.  It is the way I plan to record from now on, wherever possible. So whatever your take on it, you will know that what you hear is what we played!

So THAT is what I mean by Free Range Jazz…


Draymond Green on Jazz

Got your attention? Didn’t know the fiery Basketball heart and soul of the Warriors was a Jazz fan? Well, not exactly, but what he said about basketball applies EXACTLY to Jazz. I am going to print his quote word for word, with the exception of substituting Jazz for Basketball, Gig for Game, etc..and italicizing the words and phrases where I swapped jazz in for hoops. We who play and try to teach this music have conversations similar to this all the time, and bemoan that we have these absurdly highly prepared “hot house flowers” who do not get to (or do not choose to) learn on the bandstand. It is yet another way that great jazz and great basketball are such perfect analogs. Preach, Draymond:

“There’s no better teacher than playing Jazz,” Draymond Green said. “If you teach a guy to do a practice routine all the time and he never plays and then you throw him on the gig, he’s going to sound like somebody who practices all the time and never plays gigs. So the reality is him being on the bandstand, there’s no better teacher than that. You can’t simulate that pressure. You can go play in a pro-style jam session in the summer at summer jazz camps, with all pro players, and it still does not simulate the real-life experience of a gig with real players. So the only way to feel that is to get out on the bandstand.”*

*The original:

“There’s no better teacher than playing basketball,” Draymond Green said. “If you take a guy to do a basketball workout all the time and he never plays and then you throw him in the game, he’s going to look like somebody who works out all the time and never plays basketball. So the reality is him being on the floor, there’s no better teacher than that. You can’t simulate that speed. You can go play in an NBA-style pickup game in the summer, with all NBA players, and it still does not simulate the speed of the game. So the only way to feel that is to get out on the floor.”

Mike Drop 8 – more from the shed

So here are 3 shed tunes done in the past week that I hope you will enjoy.  A duo each with Jeff Marrs on drums and Peter Barshay on bass as well as a trio tune with the two of them. As always, first take, no edits, no surgery, no compression, no gating, just live in the room as we did it.  I always dig playing with these characters, going on 28 years now!

Sax and Bass:  Black Orpheus


Sax and Drums: Romburn (loosely inspired by Softly as in a…)


Sax, Bass and Drums:  Never Let Me Go


And with love and gratitude to Chick Corea for six decades of beautiful music and amazing compositions.  You changed the music we love for the better.

Chick Corea (Photo by Giorgio Perottino/Getty Images for OGR )

Mike Drop 7 – something from Jason Lewis

One of the prerogatives of the Mike Drop is it can be whatever strikes me that day.  Today, I want to feature a beautiful bit of music from a friend of mine. So Jason Lewis is a wonderful drummer and a criminally under-acclaimed musician, even though he is beloved in the Bay.  Under-acclaimed due to his genuine lack of interest in being involved in any part of the hype game, even to the point of having no Facebook, Instagram or even a dusty old Myspace as far as I know.  Truly humble and also funny and insightful. Anyway, Jason sent me this lovely and heartfelt piece he wrote many years ago, and has gotten around to recording this past few months, a piece entitled Gone – but not forgotten, an elegy for some of our cherished friends and colleagues in jazz, including I am sure, the redoubtable and much missed bassist John Shifflett, Jason’s partner in crime on so many projects, including 3 CDs co-led by John Stowell and me., as well as my Billy Collins Project, among a number of other excellent playing situations, stretching back 25 years  Jason is the essence of musicality, always playing the right thing for the right situation… and on this video, he plays drums, bass and piano, a video that also has his brother  on flugelhorn and his son on cello – almost like it runs in the family.  And he is also a mensch and fellow Warriors fanatic, so there is that.   I asked Jason if I could Mike Drop his piece, and he agreed.  Please enjoy Gone, written and performed by Jason and his family.


ANDREW GILBERT ON EAST WEST – MUSIC FOR BIG BANDS “East West – Music for Big Bands embraces multiplicity. It’s not either/or, it’s and/also. It’s beauty AND burn, intense swing AND sweet balladry, all united under Zilber’s commanding and ever expanding creative purview.”

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert is the preeminent jazz journalist and critic in the Bay Area, and he covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED’s California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications.  The following is his piece on Michael Zilber East West – Music for Big Bands, the Origin Records Double CD release which was released on November 5th, 2019. 

The truth is that Michael Zilber can’t be defined by a simple geographic duality. The saxophonist contains multitudes as a composer, player, arranger, educator, bandleader and collaborator who’s created a far-flung discography featuring some of jazz’s greatest improvisers. But the power of proximity can’t be denied, and his aesthetic has been shaped by the company he keeps, from his British Columbia upbringing to his formative years in the cauldron of New York City to his longtime California residence in the East Bay. His consistently captivating two-disc album East West – Music for Big Bands, slated for release by Origin Records on November 5, 2019, features two distinct orchestras recorded in New York City and San Francisco. His first big band project after 11 previous albums as a leader or co-leader (with NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman, drum maestro Steve Smith, and guitar great John Stowell), East West is a project designed to explore the contrasting sonic modalities that Zilber has experienced on the two coasts. 


“There’s more of a sense of urgency with the New York band and more of a feeling of contemplation and space with the Bay Area band,” he says. “I wanted to make an album that reflected both of those feelings. I wanted to represent the two sides of myself.”


A post-Coltrane master who’s been a creative catalyst on the Bay Area jazz scene for nearly three decades, Zilber conjures an expansive array of moods and textures with the two ensembles. Whether dexterously tearing through a thicket of Coltrane changes or taking the requisite time to caress a haunting melody he’s always telling a story, playing with a narrative drive that’s shaped by his luminous bronze tone, rhythmic prowess and harmonic insight. 


While fully acknowledging the somewhat self-fulfilling nature of the project (“I picked the tunes for each band that lent themselves to the East Coast and West Coast approaches,” he says), Zilber is less concerned about coastal clichés than with revealing different facets of his multifarious musical persona. Often typecast as a post-bop burner, he may embrace the hard-swinging approach with his New York confederates, while reveling in ravishing lyricism with his Bay Area comrades, but he and his mates from the two coasts show they are equally at home with beauty and burn. Both ensembles feature some of jazz’s most exciting and accomplished players. 


Working closely with Dave Liebman drummer Marko Marcinko, trombonist Doug Beavers, and pianist Mike Holober, a close associate from his years in New York, Zilber assembled a 16-piece New York ensemble that includes heavyweights like altoist Todd Bashore (Christian McBride), trumpeter Freddie Hendrix (Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra), Grammy-nominated trombonist Alan Ferber, and Grammy-winning bassist John Benitez. The similarly bi-coastal (and Grammy-winning) Beavers is also part of the 17-piece San Francisco band, which bristles with world class improvisers such as saxophonists Dann Zinn and Sheldon Brown, trumpeters Mike Olmos and Erik Jekabson, pianist John R. Burr, and guitarist Jeff Massanari. 


Both bands focus on Zilber’s original compositions, pieces often conceived as tributes to his musical heroes inspired by particular recordings or tunes. The New York session opens with his “Fantasia on Trane Changes,” a piece that takes a kaleidoscopic ride through the tenor saxophonist’s famous harmonic progression (a search that culminated with “Giant Steps” and “Countdown”) with six modulations over the course of 96 corruscating measures. Borrowing the form of “Inner Urge” while reversing the chord changes, “Hen House” crackles with the sly wit and surging soul of Joe Henderson. And “Breakfast Club,” based on a fragment from one of Chick Corea’s Three Quartets, offers a potent reminder of Michael Brecker’s preternatural prowess. 


“It’s based on the first two lines of a Brecker lick that’s almost impossible to play on tenor, a rapid-fire line he takes up way into the stratosphere,” Zilber says. “I figured the only way I’m going to learn it is to write a tune that uses it. The melody is based on fragments from Brecker solos. It feels like something that he might have played on harmonically, and it’s my tribute to Mike. We all love him and miss him so much.”


Like several of the pieces on the San Francisco session, these tributes are expanded versions of tunes Zilber recorded on his acclaimed 2017 Origin album Originals For the Originals. But he’s just as effective putting his own stamp on seminal jazz standards, like the arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s “Fall.” The piece uses the original melody and harmonies as a point of departure before an Afro-Cuban-tinged passage featuring some torrid trombone work by Beavers and a series of spiraling counter lines framed by a lovely undulating chorale featuring Zilber and brass at the start and and trumpeter Chris Rogers and brass at the coda (a lyrical passage that would have fit neatly on the SF session). Victor Feldman’s “Joshua” has never sounded quite so funky as Zilber’s hip-hop inflected groove gives way to a riveting drum and bass interlude between Benitez and Marcinko. 


Zilber leaves no doubt that we’ve entered a very different realm on the San Francisco session, which opens with“Weather Wayne” (which was also the name of a band Zilber led for several years). The piece evokes the sound and vibe of Wayne Shorter’s genius filtered through Weather Report. Zilber’s soprano sax on this and Fall remind us of his unabashed affinity for Shorter, one that earned him the nickname “Wayne Boy” from jazz great Liebman in the mid-1980s.  There is some particularly supple drum and bass work by Jeff Marrs and Dan Feiszli, the latter also having mixed the New York session. From the Shorterverse Zilber summons a different realm with Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s immortal theme “Over the Rainbow.” Featuring a soul-powered vocal by Joe Bagale (aka the billion-streaming YouTube sensation Otis McDonald), the track sounds as if Dorothy longed for Muscle Shoals rather than Kansas. 


The exquisite ballad “Another Prayer” conjures the numinous spirit of John Coltrane, departing from “I’ll Wait and Pray” by way of a very tender tenor stating of the melody by Zilber and the rhythm section and gradually descending on a sumptuous Mike Olmos flugelhorn solo by way of an orchestration reminiscent of Nelson Riddle’s orchestration from Sinatra’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Speaking of sublime balladry, Zilber’s arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” is a journey to remember. The beloved melody is untouched, but propelled by a gentle marching groove and recalibrated harmonies the tune turns into an epic migration, hither and thither chase that turns into a trombone chorale. This is a bird of a different feather. 


“If you’re going to do a tune like ‘Skylark,’ you need to find a way to make it your own,” Zilber says. “You need to find your own turf. Honor the original but put your own stamp on it, your own flavor.”


If the album has an emotional core it’s “Shiva For Shifflett,” a quiet meditation on the life and spirit of South Bay bassist John Shifflett based on his burning tune “Quantum Theory.” An invaluable Zilber bandmate and ubiquitous Bay Area sideman who died in 2017, Shifflett possessed an extra dry sense of humor, and he’d surely appreciate Zilber transforming his turbo-charged piece into a spacious, becalmed ballad featuring some poised and lustrous Feiszli bass work. 


“John was in my group Steve Smith for five years and the group with John Stowell with Jason Lewis for 10 years, on several of my tours and on half of my 12 CDs” Zilber says, while also noting that Shifflett anchored four of six previous Origin releases, three co-led with John Stowell and Eleven On Turning Ten, a project setting the poetry of Billy Collins to music. “His playing was strong, empathic, solid, creative and musically appropriate, and he sounded great with anybody. His passing was a huge loss to the SF jazz scene.”


The album closes on another unapologetic blast of beauty with “St. Paul,” a loving hat tip to altoist Paul Desmond based on the opening phrase of Johnny Mandel’s “Emily.” He designed the piece to feature his Electric Squeezebox Orchestra sectionmate Larry de la Cruz, a stalwart Bay Area saxophonist who should be better known. In many ways Zilber would never have undertaken East West without his involvement in ESO, a stellar Bay Area band led by trumpeter Erik Jekabson (with two acclaimed releases on Origin). 


As a founding member of the orchestra, Zilber suddenly found himself with a growing body of material written or arranged for a big band. Though he’s a dauntingly prolific composer with some 3,000 pieces to his credit, this was a new situation. “I was never a guy who woke up in the morning thinking I want to write for big bands,” he says. “Early on we had a regular gig at Doc’s Lab in North Beach and Erik encouraged everyone to write. It was a great way to develop material. If I work on this I know there’s a good band that’s going to play it. Some of the current big band writing for me is like wrapping things up in this lush frosting, and it turns out there is no cake beneath the frosting. For me, the big band composers I loved always started with a strong tune, folks like Duke, Quincy, and Gil Evans.  In that spirit, these are all small group pieces I expanded and had test-driven by the ESO.”


Born and raised in Vancouver, Zilber grew up in an art-steeped family. His father was a playwright and longtime professor of creative writing at the University of British Columbia and his mother had been a ballet dancer in New York City, where the two met and fell in love before moving to Canada. He got his start on the thriving British Columbia jazz scene, and at 18 lit out for Boston to study at New England Conservatory. He eventually earned a PhD in composition from NYU, but a good deal of his “post-graduate” musical studies took place on the bandstand playing alongside masters such as Dave Liebman, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, Miroslav Vitous, and Mick Goodrick, as well as contemporary peers like Rachel Z, James Genus, Dave Kikoski, Jimmy Earl and others. By the early 1990s, burnt out on what was then a rough and dangerous New York City, Zilber and his wife moved with their infant son to the East Bay, where he’s played a central role in the region’s jazz education scene as a founding faculty member of the California Jazz Conservatory (formerly known as the Jazzschool). Zilber’s Advanced Jazz Workshop ensemble has won 14 Downbeat awards. 


While building a creative life in the Bay Area, Zilber has maintained his New York roots, never seeking to hide his divided allegiances. His 1999 album Two Coasts featured his two working bands, with the majority of the tracks by his New York quartet with pianist Rachel Z, bassist James Genus and drummer Rodney Holmes. His Bay Area quartet featured pianist John R Burr,  bassist Peter Barshay and co-leader drummer Steve Smith. “For me it’s always been a negotiation,” Zilber says. “I’ve always had both coasts in my heart. Both sides are me.” 


Rather than resolving the coastal “conflict”, East West – Music for Big Bands embraces multiplicity. It’s not either/or, it’s and/also. It’s beauty AND burn, intense swing AND sweet balladry, all united under Zilber’s commanding and ever expanding creative purview. 


Andrew Gilbert, Berkeley California


(A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED’s California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications).