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Look Who’s Coming

Posted by: on Mar 17, 2009 | Comments (2)

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.

Live Review: John Zorn’s Masada at Yoshi’s

Posted by: on Mar 13, 2009 | Comments (0)

How in the hell to describe the show I saw last night?

I could start by explaining that John Zorn plays “radical Jewish culture” jazz, though no socio-psychological theory applies. Not, at least, on the surface. What John Zorn has done with his Masada quartet is to essentially cohere the souls of four musicians and thrust them up as one giant, overwhelming force.

Intellectualizing it is about as useless as humping a flagpole.

John Zorn is not a very imposing man, nor a particularly recognizable one. A friend at Amoeba tells the story of his being denied a sale for not having ID to go along with his credit card (another employee recognized him, and intervened). He arrived on stage last night in camouflage pants, a red T-shirt, a black sweatshirt and tassels. He barely spoke to the crowd, other than to introduce the band, and to field a shouted “Thank you!” by shouting back “No, thank you! The worst part is, we’re not getting paid to do this. We’re getting paid to travel.”

Indeed, the $50 ticket price went largely toward the cost of flying 21 different musicians and instruments from the East Coast who are taking part in Zorn’s historic five-day residency here at Yoshi’s. Every night features a different band, with a different concept and approach. $50 might seem steep to some, unless one considers the rarity of his Bay Area performances. (Masada last played in Oakland ten years ago.) Here’s my advice. Beg, borrow or steal. Raise the $50. Go see John Zorn at Yoshi’s.

Yes, it sounds like a spiel from one of Zorn’s many diehard followers, who are glossy-eyed in their reverence for the man to the point of extreme narrow-mindedness. We’ve all known people who preach the gospel of Zorn, listen only to Zorn, and eschew other musics as lacking sufficient Zorniness. Do you want to join Heaven’s Gate, they ask? Zorn, Zorn, Zorn, they chant.

But the truth is that to see Masada last night was to be baptized in the blood. The opening: a slow, simple melody. A little flourish here and there, basic all around. It grew, slowly. The control and restraint, the fluid incremental rise into exhortation, the climbing atop of each other until the song’s peak with everything before it laid visible and small. Gliding, and out, and holy shit.

The songs, fine and modal as they are, didn’t matter; it’s what this band did with them. We caught the 10pm set, which featured compositions from Book II of the Masada songbook—songs that the group is not nearly as familiar with as Book I. Rather than an obstacle, this was a blessing of innocence and discovery.

Joey Baron smiles widely while playing incredibly, and his solos were among the most lyrical drum solos ever. Greg Cohen’s interplay with Baron couldn’t have been more prescient, as he’d anticipate where Baron’s playing stopped to slide into his own incisive solos. Dave Douglas and Zorn were just as in step with each other, listening for the slightest fluctuation to capitalize upon in each other’s eruptive bursts, with Douglas at times running around the stage.

And Zorn. Does he have an endless reservoir of tone? Does he carry the history of every saxophone player before him and take that history to new places of imagination? Does he play with his mouthpiece upside down? He bogglingly unleashed his circular breathing, rabidly dancing lines and his trademark growl throughout the hour-and-a-half with just a tiny sampling from his hundreds of compositions. Is he a genius, or merely possessed?

On the way out, we bought tickets for Sunday. Euphoria carried me home.