At first, the only sensible reaction was giddy laughter that it was even happening at all. At the SFJAZZ Center last night, Jason Moran’s jazz quartet led a jam session on stage—while in the audience, with the first five rows of seats removed, eight skateboarders held a different kind of jam session on a specially built miniramp. Pretty funny, right?
But a few songs into this amusing pairing, conceived by Moran himself, the serious corollaries between the two art forms of jazz and skateboarding began to make perfect sense. As the band onstage improvised in real time, so did the skateboarders, trying trick after trick. As the band was beholden to rhythm and tempo, so were the skateboarders, slaves to that next transition in the ramp, always approaching. As the musicians played off each other’s ideas, so did the skaters, by positioning their boards on the platform for the more daring of the bunch to use as extensions of the ramp.
The results were nothing short of thrilling.
Moran, wearing a T-shirt from the East Bay hip-hop group Souls of Mischief, compared modern-day skateboarding to the early days of modern jazz at Minton’s Playhouse, “when Diz and Bird and all them were trading ideas and the language was changing so quick.”
By now, perhaps you’ve heard about, read about or even seen the construction of the new SFJAZZ Center on the corner of Franklin and Fell Streets in San Francisco. Now complete, the 35,000-sq.-ft. building is poised to redefine live jazz in the Bay Area, as it’s funded largely by private donations and handily dispenses with the tables-and-waitresses, two-drink minimum nightclub model.
After the SFJAZZ Center was announced, entirely valid concerns rose about the “museumification” of jazz. Jazz has always thrived in nightclubs—or, for that matter, seedy bars. Charles Mingus’ famous remarks about nightclub chatter notwithstanding, a certain amount of cultural globetrotting is present when the blues is played on the stage of a $64 million performing arts center.
I’m happy to report that the SFJAZZ Center strikes just the right balance between nightclub and theater. Cup holders allow the audience to bring drinks in from the bar, but nobody drops a credit card tray in front of you while the headliner is in the middle of a particularly engrossing solo. The sound, notably, is stunning, thanks to architect Mark Cavagnero and acoustician Sam Berkow. And as a mini-amphitheater set in the semi-round, with a steeply raked floor, the hall is very intimate—capacity is 700, but feels much smaller than that. There are no seats further than 50 feet from the stage.
It’s gonna be a Charlie Haden kind of weekend opening the Healdsburg Jazz Festival this year, with big names like Ravi Coltrane, Lee Konitz, Jason Moran, Charles Lloyd, Fred Hersch, Bill Frisell and many, many more performing at the best little jazz festival in the world running May 31–June 9.
Haden, who made his name with Ornette Coleman‘s famed quartet, will be the subject of a two-day tribute on June 1-2 featuring his Liberation Music Orchestra with Carla Bley and his Quartet West with Ravi Coltrane. Who else is playing the opening weekend? Try atmospheric guitar phenom Bill Frisell, invigorating pianist Geri Allen, saxophone legend Lee Konitz, Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubacalba and more.
The second weekend sees Healdsburg favorite Charles Lloyd teaming up with personal fave Jason Moran in a duo setting, the Fred Hersch Trio, the Marcus Selby Orchestra with the HJF Freedom Jazz Choir and others.
Many of the headliners this year have played in Healdsburg before and are returning to the festival, but one name’s new: Lee Konitz, who made his name with Lennie Tristano and pioneered much of the “cool” jazz sound that would go on to revolutionize the music. He conducted a student workshop at SSU in 2010, and though it was a little bit unusual, his tone and conception were as good as ever.
For more info. and ticket information as it comes along, see the festival website.
The lights have dimmed, the group on stage has started playing, and the place is quiet. Dave Holland begins playing a soft note on his upright bass, repeating it, while drummer Eric Harland rattles out delicate, precise, quiet snare rolls. Over on the piano, Jason Moran listens intently, forming long, resonant chords. By the time Chris Potter starts blowing, the tone has been set.
This is Dave Holland’s Overtone Quartet, a pleasant surprise to those expecting anything close to the jazz giant’s past glories. Though Holland played bass on Bitches Brew, and led the avant-garde hallmark Conference of the Birds, his Overtone Quartet is a different creature entirely—it balances on intuition and interplay, bordering on ESP.
A better cast for this particular approach would be hard to imagine. In front of a sold-out SFJAZZ audience at the Palace of Fine Arts on Friday night, Dave Holland’s Overtone Quartet exhibited a collective mastery of the art of listening to one another in jazz. In fact, the set’s first two selections, “The Outsiders” and “Walkin’ the Walk,” nearly focused more on input than output.
Then, during Harland’s tune “Treachery,” a thundering Jason Moran solo opened the floodgates. With his arms bouncing off the keys, Moran’s vivacious invention took center stage, and Potter came back in clearly energized.
From that point forward, the band clearly came together. Moran opened “Blue Blocks,” the opening track from his most recent album Ten, with a pensive melody; the full band hopped in and fluidly turned it into an earthy, swinging spiritual. “Trail of Tears,” a Holland composition, opened with a lovely bass solo, then reimagined the spirit of Henry Mancini’s “Charade” as a noir-esque spectre. Chris Potter, who ranges from lilting soprano saxophone to sheets-of-sound tenor, was a weak link on Friday night, but shined here, blowing breathy, low-register Ben Webster notes.
But it was Holland’s “Patterns” that brought the night’s highpoint. As Moran and Potter settled into a cyclical, repeating figure, with Moran on a Fender Rhodes, Harland worked his magic. First, he jumped schizophrenically from one quiet hip-hop pattern to the next, playing out of rhythm, like a needle being dropped at various places on a record. But he slowly increased the volume and pace, aiming at the sides of his drums, his hi-hat stand and his mounted tambourine. He built to such a point that his cowbell fell off its stand and onto the floor, and by the end of the passage, Harland was exploding all over the kit, the pieces of the previous eight minutes’ soloing pouring forth ferociously.
Because of moments like this, it’s no wonder the sold-out crowd moaned their disappointment when Holland announced the last song, “Ask Me Why.” Naturally, the group was cajoled out again for an encore, and the standing ovation that followed brought the close to a memorable night of jazz played by the best.
1. LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening (DFA/Virgin)
2. Yellow Swans – Going Places (Type)
3. Jóhann Jóhannsson – And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees (Type)
4. Robyn – Body Talk Pt. 1 (Konichiwa/Interscope)
5. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor (XL)
6. Standard Fare – The Noyelle Beat (Bar None)
7. V/A – Welcome Home (Diggin’ the Universe): A Woodsist Compilation (Woodsist)
8. The Velvet Teen – No Star (Self-Released)
9. Jack Attack – My Rights Have Been Violated (Self-Released)
10. Jason Moran – Ten (Blue Note/EMI)
11. Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday (Young Money/Universal)
12. Goodriddler – The Strength of Weak Ties (Sell the Heart)
13. Grouper / Roy Montgomery – Vessel (Self-Released)
14. RVIVR – S/T (Rumbletowne)
15. Marco Benevento – Between the Needles and Nightfall (Royal Potato)
16. Hanalei – One Big Night (Big Scary Monsters/Brick Gun)
17. Superchunk – Majesty Shredding (Merge)
18. Hearse – Diagnosed (Self-Released)
19. Sam Amidon – I See the Sign (Bedroom Community)
20. M.I.A. – Maya (Interscope)
21. Evan Parker & John Weise – C-Section (PAN)
22. Daniel Bjarnason – Processions (Bedroom Community)
23. Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma (Warp)
24. Joseph Hammer – I Love You, Please Love Me Too (PAN)
25. Best Coast – Crazy for You (Mexican Summer)
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.
When I worked at the Last Record Store, and pored through people’s record collections on a daily basis, I routinely flipped through countless copies of LPs by Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. There’s such a glut of these albums in the Bay Area that they’re not worth much, and I’d have to break the news gently to a daily stream of baby boomers that we had little use for what to their minds was the greatest music of the century.
There’d almost always be a copy in these collections of Charles Lloyd’s Forest Flower, which seemed strange to me until I read Bill Graham’s autobiography, Bill Graham Presents. Say what you will about Bill Graham—and you’d probably be right—but Graham truly excelled at the lost art of adventurous booking; placing Neil Young and Miles Davis on the same bill, say, or booking Gabor Szabo together with Jimi Hendrix.
Charles Lloyd, who Graham loved, found himself booked at the Fillmore along such names of the day as Chuck Berry, the Butterfield Blues Band, Jeff Beck, and the Young Rascals—and eventually wound up guilty by association, in my mind, to It’s A Beautiful Day. Lloyd to me became just another face in the crowd, and in all the times I listened to Forest Flower, I had the same dismissal: it’s close, but it’s not Coltrane.
Maybe I’ve changed. Maybe Charles Lloyd has changed. One thing is certain.
I was such an idiot.
Last night at the Jackson Theater, Charles Lloyd and his quintet gave an utterly transforming performance. Aided by Jason Moran, Ruben Rogers, Eric Harland and Zakir Hussain, Lloyd led his group on a frighteningly inventive sojourn which plunged into unchartered depth and redefined the rules of collective creativity. Amidst a furious storm of talent, the centered Lloyd remarked to the crowd, “It’s better to stick with the ship—and go down with it, if necessary.”
Now 70, Lloyd still plays in the great searching vein of late-era Coltrane, although his solos aren’t an aortic torrent of bitten reeds and quickly-changing ideas but rather more subtly crafted meditations. Last night, lifting his horn and marching in place while switching between tenor sax, alto flute, and a Hungarian instrument, similar to a clarinet, called a tárogató, he brought the audience to numerous pinnacles; or, in his own words, “up there to those elixirs.”
Dazzling pianist Jason Moran was responsible for just as many highlights, with a number of propulsive and chord-driven Gershwin-esque solos that incredibly bent the rules without breaking. Zakir Hussain, sitting in on tablas, added a rich texture that never overpowered the group, and bassist Ruben Rogers held the mast of simultaneous improvisation together with a solid, steady hand.
Lloyd and the group were unbelievable—but it was really all about Eric Harland.
So open to different paths and yet so confident of his own, drummer Eric Harland stole the show as the main superprocessor of the group’s collective thought. With impeccable touch and flawless taste, Harland not only drummed—he actually deciphered the conversation on stage into the most representational and delightful stickwork this side of Jack DeJohnette.
Given the open space offered by Lloyd’s group, Harland responded keenly to every moment on the stand, playing ahead of and behind the beat; keeping time with a footpedal connected to a tambourine; switching to piano when Lloyd directed him, mid-song, and plucking the strings inside while poking hard low notes; going head-to-head with Hussain in rapid-fire rhythm duets; executing ballet-like maneuvers while utilizing every inch of the drum kit; and always, always knowing where the song was headed and when to suddenly stop.
As if to acknowledge his blessed constituents, Lloyd throughout the night placed his hands in a prayer-like position, clasped his arms across his heart, and bowed. He also gratefully thanked the attentive audience, who leapt to their feet and handed him roses at the night’s end.
“When folks come with simple living and high thinking,” Lloyd said to the people, “it always helps us out.”