Pianist Sam Rudin has been a popular fixture on the Bay Area jazz and blues scene since arriving from his native Philadelphia in 1980. Known until recently as Hurricane Sam, Rudin has regularly headlined at local clubs and at hundreds of outdoor events throughout California, as well as opening shows for artists including James Cotton, Jerry Garcia, and Taj Mahal.
On Thursday 5/17, Rudin will bring his fully unique rhythm-charged piano stylings to the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, where he and his band will celebrate the release of his fourth CD, Once or Twice a Week. Performing with him at the Freight will be four of Northern California’s most gifted instrumentalists, all of whom appear on the new CD: guitarist Danny Caron, tenor saxophonist George Brooks, bassist Steve Evans, and drummer Jimmy Hobson.
Repertoire on the new disc includes the pianist’s treatments of such diverse tunes as the El Dorados’ doo-wop classic “At My Front Door,” Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk,” Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues,” and Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me.” Six of the album’s ten tunes feature his distinctive rough-hewn vocals.
Music journalist Lee Hildebrand once described Rudin in the East Bay Express as “an enormous talent” and “a master of musical Americana whose scope is near limitless,” and Phil Elwood, the venerable San Francisco Examiner music critic, called the singing pianist “an astute assembler of sounds and styles” and “a thoroughly enjoyable entertainer.”
“Whenever I play a jazz festival, I’m the blues guy,” Rudin says of his uncategorizable approach to the piano, “and whenever I play a blues festival, I’m the jazz guy.”
In fact, Rudin developed his trademark style by studying the music, not of individual pianists, but of whole bands, which he would then try to funnel through his own two hands.
Rudin’s first gig under his own name as a bandleader, when he was 24, proved to be ill-fated. He and his group had been hired to play on a cruise ship. They’d been at sea only a day when a hurricane struck off the North Carolina coast, destroying all of the band’s equipment.
After that incident, some of Rudin’s musician friends, referring also to his high-energy, can’t-sit-down performing style, started calling him Hurricane Sam. The name stuck, and as a solo performer he earned a reputation for bringing the rhythmic intensity of an entire band and for utilizing the whole range of 20th-century American music, from blues to bebop and from ragtime to rock ’n’ roll. The band he formed several years later to concentrate on that blues/jazz borderline was called “Hurricane Sam and the Hotshots.”
Rudin no longer uses the stage name, however. “It was a hard decision,” he admits, “because I have a lot of affection for that name, and it represents a certain period of my life, and of course a lot of people know me that way. But for those who don’t know who I am or what I do, I think maybe ‘Hurricane Sam’ sounds like a hard-core blues guy, or maybe a novelty act. And I guess I was just ready to have my own name back.”
To some in the Bay Area music community, Sam is best known as a master teacher. “But sometimes I teach so much I forget to get out there and play,” he says. He’s now ready to put the spotlight back on his own music. The new CD and Freight gig are encouraging steps in that direction.
The Sam Rudin Band at the Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison Street, Berkeley: Thursday, 5/17, at 8:00 pm (doors open at 7:00). Tickets are $20.50 in advance, $22.50 at the door (510-644-2020).