Glen Ellen’s JB Duff keeps the beat for Transcendence

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The Transcendence Theater Company shows are going full steam at Jack London State Historic Park. “A Chorus Line” has wrapped its run, and the theater company will present “A Fantastical Family Night” on July 19 and 20.

When the band plays that weekend, there will be two musicians from Sonoma Valley following the music director’s baton. Isaac Carter will hold down the guitar responsibilities, and Glen Ellen native JB Duff will be the drummer.

Duff, 34, has lived in the Sonoma Valley almost all his life, specifically in Glen Ellen. In fact, Duff says, Jack London State Historic Park is “literally in my back yard.”

Duff is a busy musician these days. In addition to playing in the Transcendence band, he is a founding member of the Gentlemen Soldiers. He plays locally in Mark Larson’s Atomic Cocktail and regionally in Lee Press-On and the Nails. Duff also does a tremendous amount of session work, loaning his talents to countless musicians for their gigs and recording projects.

Duff is the son of Curtiss and Linda Duff, both retired Sonoma Valley Unified School District teachers. The elder Duff is a pedal steel guitar player in two bands, Out of the Blue and Long Story Short. Mrs. Duff is an aspiring ukulele player.

Music was a constant in JB’s upbringing.

His first band, Curbside Resistance, was founded while he and his buddies were in middle school. Duff then discovered the theater while with the Sonoma Valley Children’s Chorale. Duff says, “As time went on, my interest moved from onstage to the orchestra pit.”

Duff graduated from Sonoma Valley High School in 2003 and from Sonoma State in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in music. He landed his first job with Transcendence immediately after college.

Much like his pit mate Carter, Duff feels a tremendous difference between playing in an orchestra and playing in a band. Both musicians commented on the importance of maintaining focus on the music director.

“As a drummer, I spend most of my time setting a feel for a song, solidifying a tempo, and locking in with the bassist,” said Duff. “I still do that in a pit, but the biggest difference is that my focus is now shared with keeping an eye on the MD.”

One night a few years ago, Duff was unable to keep his eye on the MD. He said he was “in the pit at the Luther Burbank Center during a heavy rainstorm and the power went out. The keyboard and bass and guitar are all electric, so everyone turned on their cell phones’ torches. I laid down a simple beat, and the cast did the closing number and bows virtually a cappella. What are you going to do? The show must go on.”

The dapper drummer added another comparison between playing in a band and in an orchestra.

“There are three or four of us on stage, with an incredible amount of freedom to navigate the music,” he said. “There is room for interpretation, improvisation, spontaneity; you can interact with the crowd in a very personal way. It’s like having a meal with friends, before you know it three hours have gone by.”

To watch Duff play is to appreciate the musical athleticism necessary to play as well as he does. “I have all four limbs working, my ears tuned in to the band as well as the singers, one eye on the music, the other on the conductor.”

Duff is truly a thinking man’s drummer. “I am here to serve the music, and not the other way around,” he says. “I am part of something larger, and when I align myself with the music, I can be myself and let the music come through me.”

JB Duff is another member of the ridiculously rich music scene here in Sonoma. You will know him by his slightly askew French beret or trucker’s hat and furiously busy four limbs. He’s a rhythmic treasure.

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