“It must be Healdsburg,” explained a tranquil Kenny Barron to the crowd. “It makes you so relaxed.”
Billed as “A Night in the Country,” last night’s flagship concert for the Healdsburg Jazz Festival could have easily been called “A Night in Wine Country,” with all of that term’s implied reassurance of the sweet life. In a decidedly mellow program of mostly standards and ballads, some of jazz’s finest players serenaded a well-dressed and middle-aged crowd at the Raven Theater with solos smooth and subtle as a vintage chardonnay and arrangements as quiet and nonintrusive as the engine of a Lexus.
It was the damnedest thing: Joshua Redman, Charlie Haden, Kenny Barron, and Billy Hart are all intensely creative players whom in the past I’ve seen deliver searing performances. Yet each member of the quartet last night appeared weirdly subdued, as if they either made a collective pact beforehand or were otherwise instructed to keep the show within the lines of accessibility for an unadventurous Healdsburg crowd. This is neither a compliment, nor is it particularly a complaint—although when one hears “Body and Soul” twice in one night, it’s hard not to feel one’s taste is underestimated.
So ballads it was, and if you’re gonna have ballads on order, Joshua Redman is the man to call. Redman’s velvety tone, with its Hawkins/Webster-lite hue, toyed with but never revealed the edges of the tenor sax last night; it was instantly apparent why he’s a star. Coupled with his melodic conception, Redman was perfect for songs like “What’ll I Do,” during which his captivating, lyrical solo—filled with sleek arpeggios and unfathomable bends—was the entire evening’s highlight. And that’s no small feat, since his lengthy intro to “My Old Flame” just minutes before, played alone in the center of the stage to awed silence, ran a close second; it was as if a loving monologue of anxiety and sorrow had been pulled out of thin air.
These heights, however, would have had a much stronger impact in a less plodding context. Paced incrementally, the set opened with Barron playing a stride-tinged solo version of “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” and one by one, each player joined in after every couple song—but since Hart on drums came last, most of the set was without a prevalent pulse. The theater was hot. My mind wandered. The band kept playing slow, meandering tunes.
It wasn’t until the very end that things reached full swing, with an appropriate choice: an uptempo rendering of “Strike Up The Band,” with Hart rattling out some attention-grabbing drum roll-offs and prodding his cohorts to finally let loose. Everyone on the stand suddenly came to life, playing the way I was used to them playing, and after a program drenched in molasses, it felt like a majestic coming up for fresh air.
A standing ovation arrived from the sold-out crowd, but the encore, syrupy enough, was an easy-breezy-beautiful rendition of “Body and Soul.” Our tickets were $50 each, and you’d think we’d want to get all of our money’s worth, but it was just too straining. We exchanged glances and bailed.
I’ve had quite a few people ask me for recommendations on the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, and what I’ve found is that most people in the world are interested in jazz but simply uninformed. There’s no better place to brush up on your jazz than this year’s festival, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is a grand slam as far as festival booking goes. Every show’s a winner, but here’s a quick run-down of the shows that I personally am planning on attending; keep in mind that everyone has their own idea of what’s cool and what blows.
First of all, any newcomer to jazz is virtually required to see Mark Cantor’s Jazz Night at the Movies (June 1 at 7:30pm, Raven Theater). The impact of Cantor’s amazing collection of 16mm jazz reels (he’s got over 5,000 at this point) is incredible, providing a cinematic history of live jazz from almost every era. Cantor’s personal introductions provide connect-the-dots context, and every single clip is moving in its own way; either hilarious, like Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang trading call-and-response eights, or downright poignant, like Billie Holiday singing “My Man” from a 1950s television special. Plus it’s only $10!
I’m stoked on finally seeing Charles Lloyd (May 31 at 7:30pm, Jackson Theater), who’s been making interesting records on ECM lately with a great group. He’s got this really great pianist, Jason Moran, and an excellent, rock-solid drummer in the form of Eric Harland. He’s getting older, but he’s an innovator from within, and those people never run out of ideas, regardless of age. Charles Lloyd was lucky enough to be booked onto Fillmore shows in the late ’60s by Bill Graham, and his searing solos fit in nicely with the psychedelic scene in San Francisco; if you’re looking for envelope-pushing jazz, check this one out.
The show I can fully recommend to everyone—and especially those with kids—is the suave-lookin’ guy pictured above, clarinetist Don Byron (June 2 at 1pm and 7pm, Raven Theater), whose Ivey Divey was my #1 jazz album of 2004. Combining klezmer, jazz, and classical styles, in a word, Byron’s music is fun. The show he’ll be presenting is great: old Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons get projected on the Raven Theater’s screen while his group plays music from his 1996 album, Bug Music. Both Raymond Scott—whose music will be represented in great supply—and Byron have that element of surprise that kids love, but he’s innovative enough (and has a great band, with Billy Hart on drums) to appeal to anyone. It’s $25, but bring a kid and it’s only $15 for the both of you!
One of my all-time favorite jazz musicians is Eric Dolphy, who played the saxophone, bass clarinet, and flute like no one else who walked the planet. He died in 1964, but his music was so great that it takes two people to resurrect it properly: saxophonist and clarinetist Bennie Maupin and flutist James Newton (June 6 at 8pm, Raven Theater). Maupin played on Miles Davis‘ Bitches Brew, and most people only know Newton from his highly publicized Supreme Court case with the Beastie Boys over sampling rights (“Pass the Mic”—the Beasties won). Newton is a hell of a flute player, on par with Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and he and Maupin have unearthed some sheet music that Dolphy left behind. It’ll be out there, but in the best sense—Dolphy never wanked for wanking’s sake—making this the show I’m probably most excited about.
How can you go wrong with the lineup for ‘A Night in the Country‘ (June 7 at 7:30pm, Raven Theater)? Charlie Haden is one of jazz’s most intuitive bassists, having helmed the Ornette Coleman quartet, the Liberation Music Orchestra, and the Quartet West (he’s also a great interview). Kenny Barron is the one pianist that no one I know hates, and saxophone superstar Joshua Redman is going to thrive in this setting. Also on the bill is Julian Lage, who I cannot say enough good things about (and that’s not just because I sold him his copy of Everybody Digs Bill Evans when he was 12). Simply put, Lage is a miracle, a supremely talented guitar player with gallons of taste. He’ll be playing with monster bassist Ray Drummond to boot!
Jazz has always been nighttime music to me, but if you can hang with the sunny outdoors at a winery, then by all means, go see Bobby Hutcherson (June 8 at 3pm, Rodney Strong Vineyards). Always terrific, Hutcherson is also a complete crowd-pleaser, hovering over his vibes and making wild body movements as he plays. He’s played on some seminal albums, including Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, and he was the saving grace of Freddie Hubbard’s disastrous performance last month at Yoshi’s. Also on the bill is Cedar Walton, who played on the John Coltrane album Giant Steps, and Craig Handy, an outstanding tenor player from Berkeley who always blows me away.
The complete Healdsburg Jazz Festival lineup is here. Say whassup if you see me around.
The lineup for the 10th Annual Healdsburg Jazz Festival has just been announced, and it’s totally out of this world. Charlie Haden, Kenny Barron, and Joshua Redman together. The Bobby Hutcherson Quartet. Bennie Maupin and James Newton playing Eric Dolphy. The Cedar Walton Trio. Even Don Byron, in some configuration or another, makes an appearance.
It doesn’t stop there: also dropping in this year are Eddie Palmieri and Pete Escovedo, Fred Hersch and Kurt Elling, the Julian Lage Trio, the John Heard Trio, a Sunday morning concert of gospel spirituals, the awaited return of Marc Cantor’s killer jazz films, and an All-Star Alumni Band on the festival’s last day.
The looming question: who is the secret “beloved and internationally-acclaimed saxophonist” performing on May 31 whose name, for contractual reasons, cannot be unveiled until April 1?
(Pssst. . . be a flatfoot: Check SFJazz’s lineup and find the guy playing with Jason Moran, Eric Harland and Reuben Rogers, all of whom have been announced in Healdsburg without their headliner.)
So kudos to the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, and stay tuned to City Sound Inertia for further coverage.