Sam Reider is an intrepid musical explorer who has crisscrossed Asia with his accordion strapped to his back, jamming with local musicians whenever and wherever he happens to find them. But one of his greatest musical adventures started in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The San Francisco musician has taken his roots-jazz collective The Human Hands on several tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department, traveling to China, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Turkey and Azerbaijan as a musical ambassador. In many cases, the sounds he chanced upon with his accordion soaked into his music, also inflecting his work as a pianist, composer, vocalist and bandleader.
His deepest cross-cultural collaboration, however, took root about five years ago, when a friend invited him to a gathering of Venezuelan musicians in New York City. That’s where he met cuatro virtuoso Jorge Glem, sparking a relationship that changed Reider’s creative course. The duo plays its first Bay Area gig in more than four years with two Saturday shows at the Red Poppy Art House, a concert booked in anticipation of their upcoming album, “Brooklyn Cumaná.” They also perform Sunday afternoon at the Cotati Accordion Festival.
“My Venezuelan friend said, ‘You’ve gotta come by and come check out our folk music,’” said Reider, who recently finished a master’s in composition at San Francisco State. “It was a tiny little room full of musicians and bottles of rum, and they were passing maracas around. Everybody was a better singer than the last person, and everyone could play the maracas, including the little kids. Then Jorge started playing cuatro and blew my mind.”
The diminutive four-string cuatro is the national instrument of Venezuela, where Glem is something of a celebrity (many Bay Area residents have encountered the cuatro in the hands of Caracas-born master Jackeline Rago, a longtime Oakland resident). Now living in Miami, Florida, Glem had just arrived in New York, and he and Reider had to navigate a language barrier during the first years of their friendship.
Glem was living in the South Bronx when they started hanging out, introducing Reider to Venezuelan music, “which is a huge universe unto itself, unlike any other Latin American folkloric music,” he said. “Outside of the Balkans, I can’t think of another tradition with so many odd time signatures. It’s all 6/8, or 3 or 5/8. Learning it was a process of feeling like when you’re in the foreign county and you don’t speak the language. But then, one of the top reasons why I moved to New York in the first place was to meet people from all over.”
With the fall release of “Brooklyn Cumaná,” the duo is getting ready for some serious touring. The album features guest artists like Guatemalan singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno and Cuban reed legend Paquito D’Rivera on a program of traditional Venezuelan and American styles and original compositions drawing on bluegrass, jazz, joropo and merengue. The Caracas-based label Guataca Records, which is dedicated to promoting Venezuelan music, backed an ambitious video project shot in Mexico City involving 100 actors and dancers that’s due out next month. Glem and Reider already have an October CD release celebration scheduled for Jazz at Lincoln Center (where Reider has taught hundreds of workshops for the acclaimed Jazz For Young People program).
Glem has gained widespread attention across Latin America and the Caribbean via collaborations with artists such as Rubén Blades, Carlos Vives, Calle 13, Natalia Lafoucarde, Desorden Público, Ensamble Gurrufío, Gualberto Ibarreto, and Trinidad-born SFJAZZ Collective trumpeter/percussionist Etienne Charles. The partnership with Reider has opened up new creative doors, “because we share that same love and respect for the traditions and roots that are present in the music we play from each of our native countries,” Glem said, speaking in Spanish.
“It’s awesome to me how, although we don’t speak the same language or play the same musical genres, this respect and admiration we both have for the culture, sounds and rhythms of our own countries automatically created a bond between us that made us musical soulmates. We both like to explore new musical sounds and neither of us shy away from experimenting, fusing traditional music with contemporary sounds or simply sounds from other cultures.”
Music was part of Reider’s life from the beginning. Growing up in San Francisco, he watched his father toil away at the piano as a musical theatre composer (when he wasn’t working as a klezmer musician). He became smitten with jazz while still a tween, and started winning major awards as a pianist in high school, including outstanding soloist at the North Texas Jazz Festival. Marian McPartland interviewed him on her storied public radio show “Piano Jazz” after he released his debut album as a Columbia University freshman in 2008, “Without Strings.”
New York City is the center of the jazz world, but Columbia set Reider on a new path, igniting a love for American folk and roots music. When his academic attention turned toward his senior thesis, in which he compared the songwriting of Woody Guthrie and Ira Gershwin, Reider began transcribing bluegrass and old-time fiddle tunes for the accordion while learning the repertoire as a vocalist.
While the duo with Glem is a stripped-down setting, Reider is also in the midst of a truly minimal project. In July he released his new album, “Petrichor,” a gorgeous solo piano session that gracefully celebrates formative keyboard influences, such as Duke Ellington, James Booker, Keith Jarrett, Claude Debussy, and Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. Recorded in the summer of 2021 at SandBox, a new performing arts venue just north of Monterey in Sand City, California, that’s run by cellist Michelle Djokic, the album “is half through composed and half improvised,” he said. “I wanted to do something with those contrasts.”
Rescheduled from last month, the “Petrichor” release concert takes place Sunday, Sept. 25, at the Berkeley Piano Club. While there’s no overarching theme connecting the pieces, the album unspools with a sense of narrative drive that’s partly informed by tunes with titles inspired by walks in Fort Funston, near his house in the Ocean View neighborhood. Whatever the musical setting, Reider is determined to break down idiomatic conventions by connecting with fellow artists who refuse to stay in one lane.
“I see that as the only artistic and spiritual way forward,” he said. “The genres are disintegrating around us. It doesn’t matter what label you fit into anymore. I find it more interesting to have a global understanding. I try to stress that American music is this big tree of different influences with the African banjo, the European lute, and Afro-Cuban clave.”