On a recent Sunday at Lyon & Swan, a swanky new North Beach supper club that effectively trades on the century-long history of demi-monde establishments that have occupied the basement space, Gaea Schell was at the piano, playing an early duo set for an underpopulated room.
With Dexter Williams on double bass providing sympathetic support, she navigated a disparate set of standards and the occasional original, tailoring each piece to fit the particular contours of her musical gifts. In the midst of a medium-tempo rendition of George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland” she switched to flute during Williams’ solo to restate the sinuous melody. On Jimmy Van Heusen’s gem “I Thought About You,” she delivered Johnny Mercer’s lyrics with telegraphic concision that brought to mind Mose Allison. It was cocktail hour, but she was offering something much more creatively nourishing than cocktail piano.
Schell has been toiling in the jazz trenches for decades, from Montreal and New York City to Portland, Oregon and Los Angeles. A persuasively swinging pianist who sounds little like her peers, she’s also a gifted composer who’s been delving into Cuban music in recent years. Plying her trade in San Francisco since 2013, she’s a restlessly curious artist who is still very much a work in progress.
Her Lyon & Swan residency runs through the end of June (with bassist Eric Markowitz joining her most Sundays), but she’ll be celebrating the upcoming release of her third album “In Your Own Sweet Way” (out June 23 on Saphu Records) a few blocks over on Broadway at Keys Jazz Bistro on Friday, May 26. Schell is also performing at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival June 24 on a double bill with the Freedom Jazz Choir led by vocal star Tiffany Austin. Both shows provide the all-too-rare opportunity to hear her with the stellar combo on her new album, featuring guitarist Jordan Samuels, drummer Greg Wyser-Pratte, and bassist John Wiitala (augmented at Keys by percussionist Carlos Caro).
Whether she’s leading a gig or working as a sidewoman, the Canadian-born Schell keeps excellent company, including some of the region’s most stalwart cats. “I’ve always liked playing with Vince Lateano, and he’s always called me for stuff,” she said, referring to the veteran drummer who’s been swinging in San Francisco clubs, bars, and restaurants since the 1960s. “I’d love to play with Vince and John Wiitala every night.”
A first-call bassist in the Bay Area since the 1980s, Wiitala has been working with Schell since she arrived in San Francisco, though the pace of their collaboration picked up as the first covid lockdown eased. They held down a weekly gig at Zingari near Union Square for about two years “where she was calling tunes,” Wiitala said. “There was always an interesting third person. She gets good drummers or good guitar players coming through.”
Wiitala has played and recorded with an imposing array of jazz giants over the years, including saxophonists Joe Henderson, James Moody, Junior Cook, Charlie Rouse, Bud Shank, and Cecil Payne. He’s sanguine about the reality of the café and restaurant gigs he and Schell often work, quoting the late great pianist Mark Levine about dedicating one’s life to “playing America’s only indigenous background music,” but those gigs can also provide a lot of room for players to develop repertoire and explore new ideas.
An Edmonton native who fell under the sway of alto saxophone bebop patriarch Charlie Parker as a young teen, Schell graduated from the jazz program at McGill University in 1997. But her approach doesn’t track with the dominant piano influences of her generation. She’s clearly listened to Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner, and later masters like Kenny Kirkland and Geoffrey Keezer, but her sound often harkens back to earlier jazz stars.
“I can hear Oscar Peterson, but in this very personal, non-bravura way,” said Wiitala, who also noted that her vocals set her apart. He’s listened closely to hundreds of budding jazz singers while accompanying classes at the California Jazz Conservatory and Stanford Jazz Workshop “and I’ve never heard anyone come through sounding anywhere near Gaea. It’s original and not always easy to play with. The phrasing is so elastic, so slippery. You have to learn how to play with people who phrase in an idiosyncratic way.”
Her new album offers a glimpse at her evolving musical interests, but she’s already deeper into Cuban music than suggested by her well-wrought originals on “In Your Own Sweet Way.” Recorded with support from a Chamber Music America grant, the project included listening sessions with Berkeley piano great Benny Green, who describes Schell as “a multi-talented pianist/flautist/vocalist/composer/arranger/bandleader with a wonderfully compelling gift for jazz, ballads, and Brazilian-flavored music.” Another grant from InterMusic SF also supported the album’s recording and release.
Schell traces her interest in Cuban jazz to an extended 2016 gig in the Bahamas, which gave her the opportunity to take a quick flight to Cuba. Speaking no Spanish (yet) and carrying her flute (an instrument much more central to Cuban music than jazz), she wandered around Havana and sat in wherever she could.
“I loved the sound of Cuban flute, the lack of vibrato, which sounds like a bird,” she said. “I came back to San Francisco and wanted to play more and formed a quartet that performed regularly at the Cliff House,” with John Santos Quartet pianist/trumpeter Marco Diaz, bassist Saul Sierra and drummer Carlos Caro.
Strangely, her opportunities to delve deeper into Cuban music expanded during the pandemic when she connected with a band in Guanajuato in early 2020. She flew down to central Mexico to perform with them regularly, and completed her work on an MFA in composition at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also spent some time studying opera in Florence, Italy, and worked and recorded with a group she met on her first trip to Cuba.
“I’m all over the place,” she says. “I’ve done so many things, played so many gigs.”
Whether it’s at Lyon & Swan, Keys Jazz Bistro or some other space where jazz has found a perch, catching Schell means spending time with an artist who’s still busy inventing herself.