Selections from the San Franciso Jazz Festival 2001
reviewed by Rahsaan Clark Morris
Wednesday, October 24: Tommy Flanagan, McCoy Tyner and Pharoah Sanders
As my cab pulled up in front of the Masonic Auditorium, I heard a band performing and the usual crowd buzz and traffic noise on the opening night of the 19th San Francisco Jazz Festival. As I ascended the stairs in front of the auditorium, off to my left the SF Jazz All-Star High School Ensemble broke into their percussion-heavy, big band arrangement of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." Arranged and conducted by SF Jazz Director of Education, Dr. Dee Spencer, the band reminded one of the theme for this opening, namely "A Love Supreme: John Coltrane 75th Anniversary Celebration." What a way to build up excitement for the talent-laden evening to follow: promising performances by Tommy Flanagan, McCoy Tyner, and one of Coltrane's last important collaborators, Pharoah Sanders.
Radio station KRON anchor Pam Moore, after being introduced by SF Jazz Director Randall Kline, acted as Mistress of Ceremonies for the first half of the evening, bringing on stage pianist Tommy Flanagan and his trio, Peter Washington on bass and Al "Tootie" Heath on drums. This night Mr. Flanagan was in fine form, energetic, witty, and ready to play with only a few asides. Playing all tunes written by Ohnedaruth—the devotional name adopted by John Coltrane in the last years of his life—the set the trio performed was compact and yet had an organic wholeness with the opening of "Cousin Mary" and the bop-ish "Minor Mishap" interspersed with the beautiful ballad "Naima," and the energetic tribute to 'Trane's bass player Paul Chambers, "Mr. P.C."
Even though Mr. Flanagan quipped that the trio would "struggle" with the changes, their version of "Giant Steps" was masterful. I don't think you can hear that tune too many times. The opening vamp was from another ballad, "Central Park West," which beautifully introduced the famous opening bars of "Steps," Peter Washington taking just one chorus for his solo, and "Tootie" Heath trading measures with Flanagan for his, a pattern both musicians stuck to most of the evening.
That band set the stage for a solo performance by pianist Saud McCoy Tyner. He began by playing the piano part of an unidentified tune from Coltrane's early Atlantic label years, the piece picking up energetically where Flanagan's group left off. Saud followed that up with a beautifully rhapsodic "I Want To Talk About You;" the changes of the tune were there alright, but, oh...the lushness and the sweep! The one blemish was the percussive left-hand comping that seemed to be too much for the house sound system, the intensity of it causing the system to distort during the first piece and especially in "Promise" later on.
But Tyner's version of Mongo Santamaria's "Afro-Blue," popularized back in the day by Coltrane's album Africa Brass, was a miracle of invention and moved with Tyner's trademark linear progression and power, never letting the tension release until the very last.
After the intermission, Randall Kline came on to introduce Le Grand Rogers from the Governor's Arts Council who presented awards to both Kline and Pharoah Sanders for their work in advancing the music in the Bay area. Pharoah commenced his set with a tune reminiscent of Summun Bukmun Umyun with its extended piano arpeggios; bassist Robert Leslie Hurst played a sonorous bowed bass line under all.
Pharoah's playing has always reminded me of a brother greeting you after a long time apart with open arms and a huge hug, as if to say he's glad you've returned home. And as part of his return to the music of Coltrane, Sanders and the group played "My Favorite Things," giving the tune a slightly different emphasis. Pharoah's version, far from being the spiritual exploration that Coltrane had made it, was more concerned with the celebratory nature of the tune.
The difficulty inherent in playing this tune, for the other three soloists, is having to come up with something inventive while not copying but paying homage to the work of original bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Elvin Jones, and pianist Tyner (and, later, Alice Coltrane, who replaced Tyner in the band while Sanders was there). Bassist Hurst, pianist William Henderson, and drummer Ralph Penland more than met that challenge.
The second extended foray into the Coltrane songbook was a beautiful, dramatically Spanish version of "Ole." After that, McCoy Tyner came on to replace Henderson for the finale, a tune that appeared to be totally improvised, bringing two old comrades-in-arms back together one more time. Ohnedaruth would have been proud of such a tribute.
Thursday, October 25: Odean Pope with David Murray
Thursday evening, two modern tenorists took the stage in the Green Room of the San Francisco War Memorial building when David Murray, a renowned leader and prime avant-gardist in his own right, joined the Odean Pope Trio for a different approach to jazz ensemble playing.
Far from being some sort of battle of the tenor saxophonists, this coming together was more like two co-conspirators facing the challenge of making dauntingly new music. With the help of veteran bass player Tyrone Brown, and drummer Craig McIver, Odean Pope, usually associated with the great percussionist Max Roach's Quartet, and David Murray worked their horns the entire two hours, realizing their goal in some marvelous playing.
The opening vamp was a quartet construct, with both leaders playing tenor, that segued into free-form succeeded by Pope's solo, a circular-breathing affair done in duet with drummer McIver, then finally becoming a percussive tone poem. Murray's sputtering, angular solo proved stimulating with his facile upper-register play. More than any tenor player working these days, Murray talks through his horn much the same way as his idol Eric Dolphy did occasionally on alto and bass clarinet.
The opening excited tempo changed in the second piece to one of mysteriousness, the quartet relaxing into the languid fold of "Please Don't Take your Love From Me." This was followed by a tune that was created within a swing context, "The Frigid Love Theme," both men using the piece as a vehicle for blowing.
Coming back after the break, the composition "Nodded Off" was highlighted by a duet between Murray on bass clarinet and Tyrone Brown on bass, Murray's work on the reed becoming literally hypnotic. "Goin' Now," a composition by bassist Brown ended up being a funk groove percolating within a complex time signature. Odean Pope was particularly soulful here, and David Murray sputtered and popped through his tenor as he had done earlier.
Pope graciously bathed the audience in his smooth sheets of tenor sound when he strode off-stage during a solo turn. In fact Odean Pope was the picture of graciousness the entire evening, referring to Murray and his band-mates in always a complimentary manner.
I began to appreciate the fact that Pope, in this trio format without two of his usual collaborators, Max Roach and Cecil Bridgewater, still managed to set up a format in which experimentation from all sides could thrive. A perfect example was "Coltrane Time," the final piece for the set. The composition had another time signature to take you to another place. Murray's solo, with its many choruses delineated by that time signature, was a model of efficiency and logic.
These four men had been collaborating for only a few days so far, as Pope pointed out in his introduction of the group, but judging by the results of this night I would love to be around for the final days of their tour, just to experience the music that might come out of them playing not only their own fine compositions, but the music of Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and Charlie Parker that I know both Odean Pope and David Murray are fond of experimenting with.
Saturday, Octotober 27: Don Byron
I returned to the elegant Herbst Theatre where, on Thursday, I briefly saw the duet of pianist Kenny Barron and violinist Regina Carter. Because I was upstairs in another part of this performance center listening to Odean Pope and David Murray, I was only able to catch the last tune of the Barron-Carter set, a hip version of "Blue Monk," where they were joined by the two men who had opened for them, Bay Area musicians Harvey Wainapel on sax and John Wiitala on bass.
Now I was there to check out clarinetist and composer Don Byron and his Music for Six Musicians, a return to his Afro-Caribbean musings of a few years back. The last time I had seen Byron, he played a musician in the Paul Auster film "Lulu on The Bridge" with Harvey Keitel, for which he apparently had composed some of the music as well. When I asked him what had attracted him to that project, he said he knew the director personally and, "The guy asked me if I would like to be in it. I liked the story and I also wrote the piece ("Izzey's Last Jam") that we are playing when Izzey gets shot."
Sort of a straight ahead blowing piece in the film, that music was nothing like the street salsa and post-Bop compositions he and the six musicians performed this night. Taken from the new CD You Are #6, this music was much hipper and savvy in its way, with its heavily politicized song titles, such as the opening number "Rosenberg Adoption Piece", which musically imagines the story of the famous '50s spies' kids, or the title piece "You Are #6," which is based on, of all things, the '60s TV show with Patrick McGooen as a James Bond-like character being held prisoner by some totalitarian entity.
On "Rosenberg....." Byron built the groove from a solo turn on clarinet to an accompanying piano duet with George Colligan during which Byron, in his homage to the ongoing Coltrane tribute, included some thematic bars from "My Favorite Things." Then, with a 3/2 clave beat tapped out by drummer Ben Wittman, and Byron imploring the audience to clap along with it, the band broke into a badd Latin jam replete with quotes from Tadd Dameron, as identified later by Byron.
(In fact, the whole set was liberally sprinkled with quotes from different sources: during one of the vamps before a jam Byron quoted a hip-hop riff; then, before a tune dedicated to the great Cubano bandleader Mario Bauza, I heard a phrase from Sergio Mendes' "Mas Que Nada"; later on I detected part of Bud Powell's "Parisian Thoroughfare" during a Byron solo.)
Going back to the first album of music for six musicians, Byron pulled out "Shelby Steele Would Be Mowing Your Lawn". (If I'm not mistaken, Shelby Steele was one of the Black men, though he might not prefer to be called that, who stood firm against the notion of affirmative action.)
Throughout most of the set, as the music moved from bluesy interludes to full blown Latin street parties, Byron led the band from every part of the stage, one time whirling his hand, another time conducting with a glance or a nod of his head, much the same casual way that Kahil El Zabar led his Experimental Band at Steppenwolf's Traffic Series some years back, moving in and out of the sections of the band at will.
When Byron described one of the last pieces as using a "Wagnerian leitmotiv" on top of some Latin percussion, and the band kicked off the amalgam this time with a 2/3 clave, I had to laugh to myself about the way I had been entertained—not by some all-over-the-place showman trying to please everybody, but by an interesting, eclectic brother trying to teach. Go 'head brother, Teach!
Sunday, October 28: Music for an Avant World
After an afternoon where I walked from my hotel to Columbus Avenue for the dedication of City Lights Books as San Francisco City Landmark #228, (writer Ishmael Reed observed, "Nobody makes pilgrimages to Barnes & Noble"), I was ready for a different kind of spiritual immersion.
At Herbst Theatre, I took in two what I think I'll just call World Citizen New Music Groups. The concert was actually entitled Avant World, another pretty encompassing description. The opening trio, Maybe Monday, was composed of koto virtuosa Miya Masaoka, guitarist Fred Frith, and playing tenor and, it looked like, sopranino saxophone, Larry Ochs. It might be helpful to explain something of their set-up before describing the music that came from this ensemble and the one that followed.
As you looked at the stage, on the right side Ms. Masaoka had two tripods which held electronic wands positioned at either end of her 5 foot long koto. These wands, which faced each other, emitted waves, something like a Theremin, that could be broken by hand motions to would emit a koto sound—this was triggered and controlled by a lap-top computer connected to an amplifier. Center stage was Larry Ochs' microphone and saxophone stand.
Fred Frith played a Gibson hollow-bodied electric guitar with an echo or tape-loop unit hooked into a Fender Reverb deluxe, all positioned on the left side. His ensemble, though, allowed him to make his guitar sound like any number of things because of the implements he would strike or rub the strings with. For the opening number, for instance, he laid the guitar across his lap and muted the strings with a shoe brush while he slapped the fret-board with short paint brushes. Ochs played some middle- and upper- register notes on the tenor while Ms. Masaoka athletically attacked the air in front of her between the wands.
I tried to close my eyes to let these sounds create images in my mind, but then the temptation to see how the sounds were being created forced me to keep them open. At one point, Mr. Frith achieved a steady, not jangling, erratic tone when he struck and slid cocktail stirrers on his strings. Ms. Masaoka sat down, switched off the wands, and began to play the koto "traditionally" with finger-strumming and thumb-picks, all the while controlling the tone with some electronic foot-pedals. Mr. Ochs picked up the smaller sax and began to play in high-register unison with Frith, who was now sliding a piano-tuning ribbon through his strings.
At the conclusion of this 35 minute piece, I realized this sound experiment was all about texture and mood, achieving those things through emergence, convergence, and synthesis, and finally, the ups and downs of emotional intensity.
The second trio performance of the evening was by pianist Terry Riley, who performed on a Yamaha Grand positioned on the left side; tenor saxophonist George Brooks, who performed from center stage; and tabla and sitar master Krishna Bhatt, who was seated on a low, cushioned riser to the right. After the first set, the music these men played was decidedly more conventional. With Krishna Bhatt opening with a traditional raga on sitar and Riley playing minimalist chords as undergirth, Brooks' tenor sax began an exploration which started off in the middle-register and escalated into a higher region.
The group played some composed pieces, possibly work that had been agreed upon earlier. The pieces were short and haiku-like in their simplicity and symmetry. The finale, with Riley chanting and singing, sitting at the keys, seemed a sort of blues progression, or at least displayed a blues sensibility.
The similarity between the two performance set-ups did not escape me and visually gave a clue to what both groups were attempting to achieve: the traditional Western chordal instrument to the left, the traditional Oriental instrument to the right, and the reed instrument common to both musical worlds, all coming together under a banner of improvisational music, to make something not necessarily different, but new for the moment. Avant world indeed.
Monday, October 29: Bill Frisell, Greg Liesz and Vinicius Cantuaria
This evening was my first time at the Palace of Fine Arts at the Exploratorium. This performance space would remind you of the old Goodman Theatre in Chicago, only wider and much deeper. The event had two promising duets, with guitarist Bill Frisell being joined by Malian guitar great Boubacar Traore, and then ostensibly with lap-and pedal steel player Greg Leisz. But, probably because of air travel problems, brought on by the recent Sept. 11 disaster and ensuing conflict, master Traore had to be replaced by Brazilian Vinicius Cantuaria, who apparently has collaborated with Frisell recently.
It was certainly disappointing to hear of Traore's cancellation. I had been looking forward to hearing this collaboration ever since it was announced back in August. A legendary Malian roots guitarist with one of the most out guitarists performing today, certainly lived up to the theme of the show: Roots of African and American guitar. But with Cantuaria as the replacement, you at least had a different guitar perspective, and an artist who was familiar with Frisell's work. On the vast stage of the Palace of Fine Arts, the guitarists were cloistered dead center, the lights forming a wash over them.
The set opened with Bill Frisell and Greg Liesz playing what can best be described as a lonely prairie meditation, of which both men are so fond. You kind of heard the bass of Charlie Haden, another frequent collaborator of Frisell's, in the under-girth of effects Frisell toyed with. There were more blue-grass/space cowboy ramblings before the duo was joined by Vinicius on kick drum (hand played). Liesz then left the stage while Frisell and Cantuaria played lovely sambas on electric and acoustic guitar.
Later on in the show, I recognized Cantuaria and Frisell playing "Strange Meeting" from Frisell's 1984 album Rambler, the stripped down version coming across as more intimate than the recorded one because of the missing Flugelhorn of Kenny Wheeler and the juggernaut tuba work of Bob Stewart.
In spite of the circumstances surrounding their coming together, this was not such a strange meeting at all; in fact when Frisell, Cantuaria and Liesz were in trio, the pieces they produced were astonishingly fine in their melding of styles. It may not have been a show about the legacy of the guitar, as much as it was a cross-culturalization with the eclectic Frisell bridging different worlds.
Wednesday, October 31: Charlie Haden's Nocturne
Now we're getting into the heart of this year's Fest. This night was an appearance by one of the many super-groups. As acknowledged by SF Jazz Executive Director Randall Kline, everybody in the group that is Charlie Haden's Nocturne is really a leader in his own right. Check out the participants: Charlie Haden on bass; Gonzalo Rubalcaba on piano; Ignacio Berroa, with his extensive knowledge of Afro-Cuban and African-American rhythms, on drums; Federico Britos Ruiz with his piquant-style, Bolero violin; and the full-throated, yet sensitive Joe Lovano on tenor sax.
(The Montreal Tapes, released in '97, was a trio performance of a young Rubalcaba with the veterans Haden and drummer Paul Motian, and was the first intimation of what might come out of the future collaborations between these two men.)
Lovano had performed at this Jazz Fest last year at Grace Cathedral for the annual "Sacred Space" concert on a bill with another of his collaborators, young tenor man Greg Osby. (If I remember correctly, he had broken up the monotony of just blowing tenor in the church with an assemblage of gongs, providing his own percussion and an interesting backdrop at the same time.) This evening the group would be performing the beautiful Mexican and Cuban boleros from the album of the same name, released earlier this year.
How fitting that this music should be performed at this time of war and rumors of impending civil threat. It gave the audience a respite from the noise and confusion of radio/TV blare, allowing them a place for contemplation. If your mind cannot drift toward anything else that is positive, you can at least contemplate the beauty that the compositions evoke and of course marvel at the grace and ease with which they are presented. If you just need a balm to help you drift off to a restful sleep, this is a lot safer than Valium. Add to that the nationalities of the musicians involved and that at least will restore your faith that people of like minds can come together to accomplish something of value.
That said, what about the music Nocturne did produce? They opened with "En La Orilla Del Mundo (At The Edge Of The World)," a tune that is the featured selection on the SF Jazz Festival Sampler, an album that features all the musicians. Lovano dramatically entered from the rear of the house to finish off the piece.
When the group broke down to the trio of Rubalcaba, Haden and Berroa, I began to appreciate another example of the art of the piano that had started earlier in the week with Tommy Flanagan, McCoy Tyner, and Kenny Baron—with Rubalcaba giving you the quiet Latin fire of a Chucho Valdes while mirroring the grace and elegance of a Ruben Gonzalez.
Haden was his usual understated self, while Berroa, playing with brushes on one of the smallest of drum kits, gave the right hint of rhythm and kept the focus all night on Ruiz, Lovano, and Rubalcaba. When Lovano rejoined the group for "Claro De Luna", the interplay of the saxophonist with Rubalcaba was much spicier than that of the original recording. The cumulative effect of the different styles of Bolero was one of peace and tranquil appreciation of beauty. If indeed this was their mission for the evening, the gentlemen of Nocturne certainly succeeded.
Thursday, November 1: Mary Stallings with the Eric Reed Quartet
This was one of the most anticipated of the concerts I came to hear. Even though Mary Stallings has been out here for years, performing with everybody from local Bay Area artists to Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie, just to name a few of the musicians she has worked with, I wasn't hip to her until Neil Tesser gave me a MaxJazz Sampler at the last Chicago Jazz Fest, promoting the vocal artists on their label.
I thought to myself at the time, "Who is this badd mammajamma?" Then I got the schedule of concerts for the SF Jazz Fest, and I saw that this singer was performing with Eric Reed's band the same evening as Brad Meldau. I had already experienced one of Meldau's performances at the Jazz Showcase, so I thought why not check out this woman?
I was already familiar with Eric Reed from his long-time association with Wynton Marsalis and especially his work as pianist with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. (Listen to his stunning work on "Blood On The Fields.") I thought the tenor man Ron Blake was going to be on the scene but his place was taken admirably by Wayne Escoffery.
The set opened with Eric Reed and the Quartet and they got to work right away with a nicely relaxed version of "Autumn Leaves," followed by John Coltrane's "26/2" which showcased Escoffery. Then Reed introduced an elegantly attired Ms. Stallings who came on singing "Sweet and Lovely" and I thought, "What a swinging way to start, using one of Monk's favs where she can open up and the piano has to say something, too."
Not to take anything away from Mary, but on the band's version of "Street Of Dreams," I got a lot of Nancy Wilson with George Shearing, which is really a good thing. The homage to her contemporary's work with Shearing came into focus on "All Night Long". Somebody else might say that this version was "drenched" in the blues, but I got to say, "It was soppin'."
In the days leading up to her set at the Herbst Theatre, I had been reading about her style in feature stories in the Chronicle and at JazzWest.com. They had focused on her soulfulness and stage savvy. Indeed, soulfulness was her trademark; the kind of sophisticated soul that Dinah Washington and "Sassy" Sarah would specialize in.
In duet with Eric Reed on Billie Holiday's "You're My Thrill," she displayed just the right touch of vulnerability mixed with "triste." Her version of "Sunday Kind Of Love" was a throwback to a time when torch songs were the thing, but strangely it was right on time, and while Reed "tickled the ivories" just so, you had all the exclamations from the crowd to tell you so.
Watching this woman in performance, I felt I was reclaiming something that had been missing from my cultural past. There was both a camaraderie and respect between the male musicians and their female front-person that transcended the usual singer/hired band relationship, making their version of "I Love Being Here With You" so apropos. Stallings couldn't have known it but when the band came back for an encore with Ellington's "I Didn't Know About You," that was the way I initially came to this set. She won me over and now I know. For Real.
Friday, November 2: Charles Lloyd and Zakir Hussain
The "Sacred Space" concert is held annually during the Fest at Grace Cathedral, a large church similar in construction to our Rockefellar Chapel at the U. of C. This year's event featured the duet of reedman Charles Lloyd and Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain performing, among other things, a piece specially commissioned for the Fest by Charles Lloyd and dedicated to the late percussionist Billy Higgins.
The two men were set up on a four-foot riser at the front of the sanctuary, with Hussain's tablas, berimbau, variously-sized Bata boxes and frame drums to the left, and Lloyd, who would be playing tenor and alto sax, C-flute, musette, and a clarinet-looking instrument to the right. As a prerequisite to my listening, I decided I would take minimal notes during the set and just remain in a meditative posture, (though images did flit through my mind, like dreams, and you know what happens to dreams; so I did open my eyes a couple of times to record the thought so as not to lose it).
It seemed as if the plaintive tenor saxophone voice that began the concert was coming from the rear of the hall, but I did not turn around to see; a few minutes later, from another side of the hall, that voice was joined by a human one, Zakir Hussain chanting in collusion with Lloyd's heralding sax. My eyes still shut, I heard the two approaching the front of the sanctuary from different directions.
After climbing the stairs to the risers, Hussain, arriving first, picked up the berimbau with coin and gourd and began to percussively join in when the chanting had ceased. Lloyd continued to play as he climbed the stairs and Hussain joined in on Bata boxes. Hussain segued from the slapping hollow sounds of the boxes to resonant taps on tablas coinciding with the trills and flourishes Lloyd was now producing on flute.
During a pause in the music, Lloyd began to reminisce about the spiritual life/actual life of "Master" Billy Higgins, relating how they would make it a point to really be with the people by walking through the streets playing their instruments, Master Higgins on marching band snare and Charles Lloyd on sax. On this night though, Lloyd said he and Hussain would be re-joining the audience, not just retracing their steps to where they came from but circulating the entire inside of the cathedral, not an easy thing to do considering the size of the place. And instead of the sax, Lloyd was going to play that odd-shaped teak wood clarinet because he wanted "to hear the fefarons and the habanaches" that it would most certainly produce.
The first thought that came to my mind—a Hip Parade. I wanted to join in their circuitous route, but at the same time I wanted to continue to sit still and take in whatever came my way. What beautiful music ensued!
At the conclusion of their walk, the two friends re-ascended the stairs to warm applause, bowing in the Oriental fashion, with hands in a prayer position to their foreheads. Throughout their concert, I noticed both men would smile more than they would express seriousness, reflecting the same joy in performance that was the trademark, if you ever saw him play, of Mr. Billy Higgins. All in all, a fitting tribute.
I left the solemnity of Grace Cathedral and took a quick cab ride to Bimbo's 365 Club in North Beach, where I walked into the funk and fine women of the 2001 version of SF Jazz's Salsa Dance Party, with Manolo "El Medico De La Salsa" and his band, who had already hit the stage.
Manolo—real name, Manuel Hernandez—ended up replacing, at the last minute, Issac Delgado, who seemed to be having visa problems, probably another outgrowth of Sept. 11. I began to see a disturbing pattern as far as musicians coming to the U.S. to perform from South American, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, and African countries. At least three of the major acts for this year's SF Jazz Fest did not come and I remembered how Chicago's Celtic Fest and the World Music Fest, were severely curtailed because of the situation. In most cases, I had purchased tickets to events based on the strength of particular artists appearing.
But Manolo did not disappoint. Bringing his roots-like brand of salsa, salsa callejera, to Bimbo's stage, played by his hot horn section, timbale and conga players and his guitarist, the crowd was both appreciative and into it, with different couples exhibiting fabulous moves on the floor to rival the gyrations of Manolo and his two front-line singers. The set was still going when I split two hours later. The party was repeated the next night, opened by Jesus Diaz y Su QBA, which I am sad to report I had to miss.
[Ed. To view photos of the concerts described above and other SF Jazz Fest events, visit www.jazzwest.com.]
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