“I’m a digger,” says longtime Venice resident Eric Ahlberg. “A digger is someone who just digs the community and wants to make a contribution to the community and all that is going on.”
A community leader, Ahlberg has used much of his time to help promote the arts in Venice. His monthly newsletters keep folk up-to-date on local events. As a member of the Venice Arts Council, he has organized exhibits and helped restore murals. Additionally, he often provides the sound systems for events like the Venice World Music Festival and the Abbot Kinney Festival.
But Ahlberg is also a pianist, and it is in that capacity that he will be appearing at Sponto Gallery on February 16 with his group Jazz Workshop for the Jazz Funk Fest.
The group, which features a rotating line-up of performers, plays roughly once a month at various local events, where sets are based on heavy improvisation.
“I really like my players to invent the music that they are going to be playing on the spot,” says Ahlberg. “I set the tone on the piano, I set the feeling and they fill in however they have the need at the time to express themselves.”
He adds, “I like to work that way with musicians, where they can stretch and really express themselves.”
But Eric Ahlberg’s Jazz Workshop isn’t just about band members feeding off each other for spontaneous bursts of music. Ahlberg invites audience members to join in the fun as well.
“I usually leave a lot of room for anyone there who wants to perform,” he says. “We also try to have a section where poets or rappers can get up and we kind of set a groove for them to do their poetry to. We kind of try to encourage folks to read their poetry or to improvise to our improvisations, which are groove based.”
Ahlberg’s performance style with Jazz Workshop is clearly in line with Sponto Gallery’s past as beatnik haunt Venice West Café. “I feel that we are in a very strong tradition of poetry and music taking place at that place with a real emphasis on improvisation and freedom,” he says.
But improvisation isn’t just about capturing the spirit of a bygone era. For Ahlberg, the beauty of music lies in the freedom to create on a whim.
“It’s one of the essentials of the universe, that everything has a vibration and a rhythm,” says Ahlberg of improvised music, noting that some people are often shy about making music on the fly in front of a crowd of people.
“Sometimes, they need a safe environment,” he explains.
Perhaps Jazz Workshop does create that sense of security needed to encourage artists to approach the stage. Ahlberg has definitely been working in that direction.
“I’ve kind of evolved from playing a lot of standards where I have my own themes and feelings that I try to play out on the piano now,” he explains. “I’m interested in creating a mood and setting a mood so that the other players can have a lot of freedom to express themselves.”