I talked with jazz pianist Jason Moran a couple weeks ago for a feature on the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, and I gotta say, the guy’s really smart and down-to-earth—and a hell of a piano player. His soon-to-be-released album Ten is easily the best, most natural-sounding album he’s made, and he plays Sunday afternoon at Rodney Strong Vineyards with Bill Frisell. I urge you to check it out. How many jazz pianists can you name who are planning to record a duets album with Ghostface, MF Doom and Jay Electronica?
For those who missed out on Esperanza Spalding’s sold-out show last night at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, or who can’t make it to the Charlie Haden / Ravi Coltrane show tonight, be advised that Craig Handy is playing for free in the Hotel Healdsburg lobby tonight from 9-midnight with “special guests.” I’ve seen Craig Handy both chewed out by Sue Mingus for showing up late to a Mingus Big Band show and suffering behind an irascible Freddie Hubbard, so be nice to the guy, okay?
It’s not free, but this year’s Festival del Sole features a performance at Daryl Sattui’s crazy $30 million, 121,000–sq.-ft. Castello di Amorosa by 16-year-old Canadian singing sensation Nikki Yanofsky. You might have heard of Yanofsky through her involvement with the nutsy-cuckoo “We Are The World”-like re-recording of K’naan’s “Wavin’ Flag” to benefit Haiti, or for singing a laid-back version of the Canadian national anthem for the 2010 Olympics. But you should really just go to her MySpace page, ignore the goofy press photos that look like Blossom, and listen to her insane scat-scattered version of “I Got Rhythm.” Damn!
The Wells Fargo Center has announced their upcoming season, including the return of both Wynton Marsalis and Tony Bennett. Marsalis is playing with the full Lincoln Center Orchestra, and you’ve got time to plan your evening—the show’s next February, in 2011! Bennett slips in a little sooner, on September 21, and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: at 83, the guy hasn’t lost an iota of his voice, talent, or showbiz class. I met him briefly at the then-Luther Burbank Center after a show about ten years ago; he was flanked by Mafia-looking bodyguards and incredibly kind to me, a then-young, googley-eyed fan. Go see him if, and while, you can.
Spring is anon, meaning festival announcements and venue bookings are being shot down the pipe faster than the flowers can bloom. In a quick overview, there’s Classics of Love (with Operation Ivy’s Jesse Michaels) at the Last Record Store (Mar. 28); bass-heavy knob twiddlers Crystal Method at the Phoenix Theater (Apr. 15); walking freak-folk embodiment Devendra Banhart at the Mystic Theatre (Apr. 17); fado sensation Mariza at the Napa Valley Opera House (Apr. 30); electronic visionary Bassnectar at the Hopmonk Tavern (May 4); soprano legend Kathleen Battle at the Marin Center (May 9); and Lucinda’s right-hand man Gurf Morlix at Studio E (May 16).
What’s that, you say? You like to watch TV more than you like to listen to music? Fear not! The Wells Fargo Center has the interminably funny Joel McHale, he of dryly absurd wisecracking on The Soup (Apr. 11); and hang on to your thong straps—the Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma has glam-metal washup-turned-reality show “star” Bret Michaels (June 27) to attract a slutsational crowd good for copious dead-drunk bikini-clad hoochie watching beneath the ferris wheel. Look what the cat dragged in, indeed!
Sounding a different note entirely, Napa’s beautiful Festival del Sole steps forward this year with young violin sensation Sarah Chang (Jul. 18-19) and the return booking of Renée Fleming (pictured above, Jul. 23), who in the festival’s first year was forced to cancel her performance of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs due to illness. Iran’s most famous composer, Anoushirvan Rohani, will appear for a dinner and concert (Jul. 20), and the dashing Robert Redford—be still our throbbing hearts!—benefits his Sundance Preserve by narrating a piece to be announced (Carnival of the Animals? Peter and the Wolf? An interpretive tone poem of The Horse Whisperer?) at Castello di Amarosa (Jul. 21). Full lineup here.
In economic-crisis news, the Russian River Jazz Festival and the Russian River Blues Festival this year will be combined into one solitary September weekend as the Russian River Jazz & Blues Festival preserves a 30+ year tradition of great music on Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville. “This allows us to keep the Russian River festival tradition alive,” says Omega Events president Rich Sherman, “while enabling music fans to still enjoy their love of jazz and blues outdoors in this picturesque setting.” Saturday’s jazz lineup and Sunday’s blues lineup (Sept. 12-13) will be announced in April. Check here for updates.
After the Masada show at Yoshi’s, I overheard a guy talking to bassist extraordinaire Greg Cohen, who along with accompanying Ornette Coleman as of late was part of the great New York band on Rain Dogs, Frank’s Wild Years and Swordfishtrombones. “Hey, guess who I played with the other week?” the guy asked. “Waits. Went up to his place and rehearsed.”
“Oh?” asked Cohen. “New material?”
It seems so. In addition to finally releasing Orphans on vinyl soon, Tom Waits’ publicist confirms that he is writing, rehearsing, mangling, fixing and re-mangling new material for an album to be released in the sometime-maybe-this-year-who-knows future. Recording is anticipated sometime this summer. Waits, of course, was last seen snapping photos of the brimming crowd that gathered en masse at his daughter Kellesimone’s art show in Santa Rosa.
Despite a mission statement promising to “present and preserve jazz,” it’s probably time to just roll over and accept that the Sonoma Jazz+ Festival’s gonna book whoever they’re gonna book. We could say, you know, Lyle Lovett has some sax players in his band. Joe Cocker, you know, he might play some solos. And hey, they added that tiny little “+” to their name to represent past headliners like Steve Winwood, Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller, LeAnn Rimes, Michael McDonald, Bonnie Raitt and Kool & the Gang. Who are we to be snobs?
But look, since no other media outlet in the area seems brave enough to protect this American art form—and since local jazz programmers don’t want to be quoted saying “You mean that bullshit thing they call a jazz festival?” (actual quote)—it’s up to us. There are plainly no jazz artists headlining Sonoma Jazz+ 2009 this year. Around here, we’d even be cool if, like, Rick Braun was playing. But Chris Isaak?
Sonoma Jazz+ does many great things, not the least of which is providing support to music programs in area schools. They also have a second stage, and ‘Wine and Song in the Plaza’ with small combos. But in light of the PR assertion that they’ve already booked any jazz headliner who could fill a 3,800-seat tent, our suggestion is to honor jazz and please just call the festival what it actually is: the Sonoma Music and Wine Festival. Joe Cocker, Lyle Lovett and his Large Band, Ziggy Marley, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Shelby Lynne and Keb’ Mo’ come to Sonoma May 21-24. Tickets are on sale here.
Simultaneous with the creative definitions emanating from Sonoma is the encouraging news from the Healdsburg Jazz Festival announcing its initial lineup, and it looks great. John Handy, Randy Weston, Airto Moreira, Esperanza Spaulding, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Denny Zeitlin and Julian Lage head up a list-in-progress of bona fide jazz headliners appearing May 29-June 7 this year. For updates, check here.
Hey man, the Harmony Festival is full of good vibes this year! Michael Franti, India Arie, Matisyahu, Cake, Steve Kimock, ALO, Balkan Beat Box, and Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars head up the festival June 12-14 at the Fairgrounds. Barring any John Mclaughlin-esque guitar freakouts by Kimock, the weekend should be bereft of maniacal discord. Be harmonious.
The Santa Rosa Symphony announced its rough sketch for the 2009-2010 season today, including a finale performance by Ute Lemper singing Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins! Also on the slate: returning conductor emeritus Jeffrey Kahane playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (the one from Shine), performances of Beethoven’s 4th, 5th and 9th symphonies, Mozart’s Requiem, a program celebrating Chopin’s 200th birthday, the Red Violin concerto, and more. I always love the symphony’s Magnum Opus commissions, and Bahzad Ranjbaran’s new work will receive its world premiere next season as well.
On a semi-related note, I listened to Elliott Carter last night—an LP I found years ago, bought for the cover art and loved for the music. It’s his Sonata for Cello and Piano, and I still love it. Unbelievable that he’s 100 years old and still completely lucid about his work. I love the excerpt from this interview, which succinctly captures not only his sense of humor but the reason why I give such a damn about music:
Q: Could you imagine a day when people, concertgoers, would hear your music and walk out humming your music?
A: Well… it’d be hard on their throats!
Q: What would you want the listener to walk away with after hearing your music?
A: Happiness. And pleasure. One of the fundamental things always that music should do is not only give pleasure, but widen one’s horizons, and give new kinds of fantasies, and new kinds of pleasure, and new kinds of surprises, and new kinds of connections between things.
It wasn’t the castle. Nor was it the exquisite views, or the wonderful weather, or the feeling of being in a pastoral renaissance drama. It wasn’t even the awe-inspiring performances, though they ran a tight second.
No, what made Joshua Bell’s appearance at Castello di Amarosa tonight so infinitely remarkable is that during the intermission, while still bathed with perspiration from a dominating run-through of Grieg’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3, Joshua Bell hopped off the stage, strolled down the aisle, and hung out.
Classical musicians do not “hang out.” Classical musicians of Bell’s caliber, especially, do not “hang out.” But there he was, doing just that, hanging out—chatting with fans, charming old ladies, signing programs for young violinists, and taking photos with visibly bowled-over members of the audience.
You don’t get this kind of close camaraderie at Avery Fisher Hall or the Kennedy Center. But in the Napa Valley, Bell thinks to himself: What the hell. I’m at a castle, it’s kinda weird, and these people seem cool. I think I’ll stand over near that cast-iron dragon head under the coat of arms unfurled on the wall and, you know, hang out.
Bell’s casual presence didn’t diminish the absolute seriousness and command he demonstrated on stage just moments before, in an utterly stunning display of precision, taste, and verve alongside the excellent pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
Jogging onto the stage in an untucked white shirt, magazine-current haircut and winning smile, Bell raised his bow and dove hungrily into Grieg’s sonata. Containing numerous passages which in the hands of others might be choppy or scratchy, the piece proved a demonstrable showcase for Bell’s glassy smoothness. Flawlessly quick changes from low growls to feathery high notes abounded, and Bell’s final note of Grieg’s second movement—reaching as high as the violin can play—had the gossamer quality of untouched water at dawn.
It may be a cliché to imagine an instrument as an outgrowth of the body, but if so, the cliché begins and ends with Bell. His 1713 Stradivarius protruded from beneath his chin as an extra appendage, a thing incomplete when it is not next to him and—in ways—vice-versa; he played it as if brushing back hair, natural and thorough. His connection was just as strong with Thibaudet, who joined Bell in a telepathic understanding of the piece and of each other, handling his end with a marvelous touch at the piano.
Bell has been performing the Grieg sonata for some time now, and it’s high time he recorded it. No doubt the crowd tonight would nominate Thibaudet as his studio mate. At the end, after the intricate plucking and ferocious dance passages of the third movement, the audience was on their feet, bringing the pair back to the stage for three separate sets of bows—all of them more than deserved.
Opening the concert was soprano Lisa Delan, in a light purple dress with thin straps, singing the world premiere of Gordon Getty’s Four Dickinson Songs. A moving and often daring musical adaptation of four Emily Dickinson poems, the work nonetheless received a lukewarm reception, despite Delan’s dramatic interpretive ability. After the intermission, Thibaudet returned to the stage with the Rossetti String Quartet for a perfectly thrilling Piano Quintet in F Minor by Brahms. Like Bell’s performance, it was joined somewhat charmingly by the near-constant sound of birds chirping in the sky above the castle’s great outdoor room.
Festival del Sole co-founder Barrett Wissman was in a cream-colored suit jacket and black slacks, nursing a plastic cup of red wine; his wife, the cellist Nina Kotova, wore a chic black dress, diamond earrings and a gigantic amethyst necklace that attracted comments every ten feet or so. The Castello di Amarosa, too, was done up nicely; even the posts holding up the stage tent were covered in a faux stone to match the castle walls, as film crews from PBS were on hand, recording for a special.
But it was the close atmosphere and the proximity to greatness that defined the evening. In fact, at one point, while poking around upstairs, who should I see through a small stone window but Joshua Bell himself, in the castle’s dressing room, blowdrying his hair. It was a strange and beautiful moment, and one that I was glad I had my camera for.
All in all, it was a truly memorable night. More photos below.