The stage is set for the mood, with lighted candles on a small table next to the piano to the left, and more candles illuminating a vast array of percussion instruments covering a table to the right. Lights lower as the five women enter, and without further ado, proceed to pull the audience into their music, a riveting fusion of jazz, gospel, and Afro-Latin - always with a message, be it political or personal, and always with a driving energy that can switch in the wink of an eye to a subtle sotto voce.
These women, a group known as Alive! from the San Francisco Bay Area, have two albums to their credit and are now touring the United States with the Brazilian fusion group of Flora Purim and Airto. They've been together, mostly on the road, for two years, and their popularity is growing.
Rhiannon, vocalist for Alive!, met Carolyn Brandy, conga player/percussionist , and Susanne Vincenza, acoustic and electric bassist and cellist, in the fall of 1976. The three got together to experiment with some original music. After much informal jamming, they named the trio Alive! and began working in Bay Area coffeehouses, which ultimately led to several tours and appearances at music festivals. By 1979 drummer Barbara Borden and pianist Janet Small had been added to the group, rounding out and expanding the sound.
That year the five traveled over 30,000 miles in their Ford van, Blue, and recorded their first album, appropriately entitled ''Alive!'' (Urana Records ST WWE 84). And they've recently released their second album, recorded live at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco - ''Call it Jazz'' (Redwood Records 8484).
Call it what you will, these five women from diverse backgrounds have come up with a singular brand of music. Each is a talented composer and has added her own original tunes to the group repertoire. Bassist Vincenza, who comes from a background of avant-garde music, says ''I write a lot about what's going on in the world. I don't write love songs.'' She was involved in politics in the 1960s , but she says, ''In the band we have an agreement not to use political rhetoric. We use experiences from our lives - we want to make ourselves as accessible as possible. Primarily we're musicians and we want to present the music.''
Drummer Barbara Borden agrees that the music is the thing, but she does write love songs, of a sort - her ''Loving You,'' on the ''Call it Jazz'' album, starts out as a tender, breathy paean to the joy of adoring someone, then abruptly breaks into an up-tempo vocalese section reminiscent of early Annie Ross (of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross), decrying the busyness of daily life - ''Gotta do the dishes, make the bed, return the phone calls. . . .'' Barbara has been playing drums since her early childhood, starting with pots and pans and graduating to a real drum set at age ten.
''I wouldn't let my mom out of the store until she promised to buy them for me. They were delivered the next day, and I set them up all backward. We had this funny little record player that played 78s, and I used to sit there with my drums set up backward and play along with my records.''
By the time Barbara met up with Alive! she had already been through a lot of playing experience as well as a number of years ''trying to be a regular person with a regular job.'' She had been scared at an early age by the instability of the music business, but after several years away from it decided, ''This is silly. I'm going to do music, because it's what I love to do.'' Not long after that she joined Alive!
Singer Rhiannon, possessed of a phenomenal vocal range and an intuitive feel for lyrics and ''scat'' (fast-paced, nonsense) syllables, puts her whole self into every kind of song from a sweet love ballad to a driving rock tune like Susanne Vincenza's ''Check the Facts.'' Rhiannon, born on a farm in South Dakota , knew she wanted to be a singer from an early age. Later, she was involved in musical comedy.
''I had gotten bored with singing because I wasn't improvising,'' she says.
Then she moved to New York and heard jazz really for the first time. Although she was still involved in theater, the sameness of it eventually drove her away, all the way to California, where jazz really started to happen for her. She met a trumpet player in a jazz show there who taught her to scat sing, and from that point began working as a jazz singer. Yet Rhiannon hasn't left her acting career totally behind:''I look at myself as a creative performer as well as a singer. I can see acting coming around to me again.'' Anyone who has experienced Rhiannon at an Alive! concert can see the truth in that statement. Pianist Janet Small, who started out as a violinist, has also added her compositional talents to the group, with some pithy, fascinating, and difficult material, with complicated time changes and driving rhythms. A political science major in college, Janet got into jazz through an interest in reggae, rock and roll, and funk.''I liked to dance to it,'' she says. Her politics also play a part in her music: ''I like the idea that we are saying something on stage that has to do with our lives and the world.'' Percussionist Carolyn Brandy, like Janet, started out as a violinist. She really played herself out with it through high school, though, and ended up dropping it altogether for a while. It was at that point that she became interested in percussion.'' In the streets, at parties - people were playing a lot. I played like that, sort of free, for about four years. Then I decided to start studying different systems of drumming. I studied Latin and African and Afro-Cuban, Afro-Haitian, Brazilian. I also studied wth some Guinean people, and played with a group from Zimbabwe for four years.'' She went to California to continue her studies and met Susanne and Rhiannon. Essentially a democratic, ''leaderless'' organization, Alive! is glad to have manager Barbara Edwards working with them, and the members express their gratitude to her publicly at every concert. The group has a family feel to it, and the very lack of leadership seems to create a strong sense of commitment among the players.'' We've learned some things about getting along,'' comments Rhiannon. ''We've learned, for instance, that it's very dangerous to have volatile discussions right after a performance.''''. . . or before!'' adds Barbara Borden.'' It's critical to get cleared out with each other before the gig, because if there's a funny feeling it gets in the way of the playing. You can get into a real state after you drive for 40 hours straight, and you can get upset about any little thing. So we've learned to let it simmer down, or call a group meeting, or just let it go by.''Through it all, manager Barbara Edwards watches over the band with a protective concern:''Being together so much, our process of dealing with each other has gotten more efficient,'' she says. The democratic nature of the group has its advantages and disadvantages, according to its members. ''It takes longer to do things this way,'' says Barbara Borden.''It's different, but it's not really harder without a leader,'' adds Susanne Vincenza. They agree that with a leader, things could change a lot more - personnel changes could happen more easily, and that would be a definite disadvantage to Alive!, whose strength depends to a great degree upon the fact that they've stuck together. They put a lot of effort into working things out rather than making precipitous, and perhaps, unwise, changes.But the main thrust of Alive! is its music, and as drummer Barbara Borden puts it:''I guess the goal with music is to have it be a way to help people tap into the highest univeral resources in themselves and bring out the good, positive qualities.'' Alive! will be in Seattle, Wash., Nov. 10, 11, and 13; Bellingham, Wash., Nov. 14; the Cornish Institute in Seattle, Nov. 17; Olympia, Wash., Nov. 19; Eugene, Ore., Nov. 20; Portland, Ore., Nov. 21 ; and Corvallis, Ore., Nov. 22.