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.
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.
SFJAZZ Spring Season Out of Control; Lou Donaldson, Tomasz Stanko, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Caetano Veloso, more
Jesus Lord, why do they do it to us? SFJAZZ’s spring season is announced today, and once again the booking has turned up a crazy, diverse lineup full of wide-ranging talent and scattered must-sees. Exciting stuff to say the least.
On May 29, Blue Note legend Lou Donaldson blows soul-jazz roots at the Herbst. On Apr. 11, my man Tomasz Stanko drops in with his quintet to the Florence Gould Theatre at the Legion of Honor; the ticket includes entry to the museum. (Stanko’s recent tribute to Krystof Komeda is sublime.) Apr. 25 brings Charles Lloyd with Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland to the Palace of Fine Arts; this quartet is incredible and shouldn’t be missed.
On Feb. 21, Touareg political pioneers Tinariwen plays the Palace of Fine Arts. Count the cratediggers on Apr. 17 for Brazilian pioneer Caetano Veloso singing at the Masonic, and on June 11, the excellent bassist Marcus Miller replays Miles Davis’ electric era at the Herbst.
It keeps going on! On May 1 it’s the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, the Chicago-bred sensations, playing two shows at the Palace of Fine Arts. On Mar. 20, the hip-hop–influenced Robert Glasper Quartet plays with Japanese star Hiromi at the Herbst Theatre. And Mar. 13 brings alto saxophonist and former Vijay Iyer collaborator Rudresh Manthappa to the Swedish American Music Hall.
Keith Jarrett, Pharoah Sanders and Joshua Redman all play separate solo shows, and Bobby McFerrin, Chris Thiele, Salif Keita and Max Raabe are in the mix, too. There’s way more; check out the full and complete lineup here, and if you’re like me, you’ll start saving up for tickets.
Ornette Coleman, a slow, frail-looking figure at age 79, shuffled onto the Davies Symphony Hall stage last night. Slowly making his way to the bandstand, he bowed, remarked that it was good to be able to get to know the audience, and picked up his alto saxophone. He and his band began to play.
Suddenly, Ornette Coleman wasn’t 79 anymore. He was 24, or 34, or any particular age in between. His saxophone came to life with his unmistakable butcher-paper tone, a singular voice in jazz that is ageless. During the next five minutes, he picked up and played a flugelhorn, then a violin. His band rumbled forth until the line between improvisation and composition blurred, and the whole propulsion came to a quick, sharp stop.
It was, in a word, miraculous.
While many jazz legends age ungracefully and move into smooth-jazz territory, Coleman through thick and thin has continued to follow his own path, a journey that is at the heart of jazz itself. In recent years, this journey has brought him to the Pulitzer committee and, in one of the funniest television moments of the last few years, the Grammy Awards. He has also time and again returned to the SFJAZZ festival, who presented last night’s concert. But he hasn’t rested on his laurels, playing at Davies from a chartbook full of new compositions and old classics with a stellar band featuring son Denardo on drums, Anthony Falanga on upright bass and Al McDowell on five-string electric bass.
In a mostly adventurous, tight set, there were admittedly moments when the men on stage weren’t entirely together. “Blues Connotation,” the opening track from This Is Our Music, was the first sign that age might be catching up with Coleman—he layed out for the lightning-fast head, and when it came around again as the outro, he struggled to keep up.
But any minor diminishments were more than overshadowed by the stellar, unpredictable vision of Coleman’s music. MacDowell provided swirling counterpoint to Coleman’s playing, like a spider doing the Charleston, while Denardo, playing more rock beats than usual, maintained a strange sense of control. Falanga, an excellent bassist, brought the house down by bowing Bach’s Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1, more than capably handling the iconic theme arranged for jazz in a surprise twist.
Coleman himself, with his bizarre white saxophone, played remarkably. After a short, beautiful encore run-through of “Lonely Woman,” the applause was too great, and the band returned for “Song X.” Davies Symphony Hall resonated with Coleman’s bended notes, his falling glissandos, his jumping lines. It was clear that nowhere else in the entire world was music like this, full of humanity and love, being played at that same moment.
May Ornette Coleman live on, and may his music last a thousand years.
Every year, SFJAZZ puts on so many shows, all around the city, and it can be kind of daunting for a casual jazz fan to decide which ones to attend—especially those living in Santa Rosa, where attendance means am hour’s drive plus gas and bridge toll. The new season starts this week, and everyone’s got different tastes, but here’s my whittled-down list of the best five SFJAZZ shows this fall.
Nov. 8: Ornette Coleman at the Masonic Auditorium
Beg, borrow or binge—whatever you do, see Ornette Coleman. His history doesn’t need to be recounted here; what you need to know is that he still sounds as creative and vital as he did fifty years ago. Seriously, you will not believe that he’s 79 years old. He plays with two basses—one bowed, one plucked—and his son, Denardo, on drums, with whom he’s been playing since Denardo was 12. Expect to be left speechless.
Oct. 31: Marco Benevento at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
I first heard Benevento playing wildly on a 35-minute song by Zach Hill, the drummer for Hella; he, along with Ethan Iverson, represents a trend of assimilating indie rock into jazz. Live, Benevento manhandles a group of pedals and effects with his trio, which keeps one foot in the “jam” world. Bonus: the ticket price is on the low side and the venue is nice and small.
Nov. 4: Trio 3 at Swedish American Music Hall
I make no reservations about recommending these three and their intuitive magic created together. Reggie Workman’s resume with John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter speaks for itself; Oliver Lake is a mammoth tenor player and Andrew Cyrille spent 11 years backing Cecil Taylor. If you can’t make it to their show in Healdsburg, do yourself a favor and head to the wooden-interior Swedish American Music Hall.
Oct. 23: Gonzalo Rubalcaba Quintet at the Herbst Theatre
I’ve had a cassette of Rubalcaba’s Discovery: Live at Montreux in my car for a month now, and have not tired of it in the slightest. This show is with a quintet—the same guys on his last album, Avatar—and he fuses Cuban music and jazz in a decidedly artistic, and not commercial, fashion. Always worth seeing.
Oct. 30: Nicholas Payton & Don Byron at Grace Cathedral
Part of SFJAZZ’s “Sacred Space” series, where artists perform solo in Grace Cathedral and utilize the incredible seven-second echo attainable from the towering ceilings. Payton is most likely to work the room with sharp trumpet punches and high wails in the New Orleans tradition, while Byron specializes in Eastern scales on the lower-register clarinet.
For more lineup information and tickets, see SFJAZZ.
Last night, the City of San Francisco belonged to Adam Theis.
At 8:06pm, the lobby of the Palace of Fine Arts was full, over a hundred people, with two lines for will call and another line for ticket purchases. Inside the theatre, all seats were occupied; standing-room overflow lined the aisles. Onstage, the orchestra had already begun playing, trying to fit as much music as possible into the tiny time frame allowed.
At the front was the man of the hour, Adam Theis, conducting this impossibly huge ensemble after a year of nonstop writing. San Francisco’s own Theis—of the Jazz Mafia, the Realistic Orchestra, the Shotgun Wedding Quintet and an upbringing in Santa Rosa—stood casually in sneakers and a hooded sweatshirt, overseeing the premiere of his magnum opus and life’s work thus far.
This is no local-boy-makes-good story. After the incredible composition unveiled last night, it’s time to stop with the hometown platitudes and officially herald Adam Theis as a major talent.
Brass, Bows & Beats is a work on par with Miles Davis & Gil Evans’ Live at Carnegie Hall or Charles Mingus’ Epitaph—visionary in scope, staggering in depth. Rarely have I heard live music of greater variety without the variety itself taking center stage. If there is a dominant theme to the work, it is that we are all one, and it makes its case with dizzying arrangements, evocative poetry and an impossible-to-resist urge to get down.
In the great jazz tradition, Adam Theis has spent ten years playing virtually nonstop in San Francisco’s small nightclubs. Sometimes he’ll play a whole set of loose, free-form funk songs. Sometimes he’ll stick to strictly jazz. Lately he’s been showcasing special sets of instrumentals sampled by De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, bringing attention back to the sources of classic hip-hop songs. Beats, Bows and Brass combines all of this activity with cerebral aplomb and an unerring personality that widely circumvents the rudimentary hokum of early jazz/hip-hop hybrids like Jazzmatazz or Hand on the Torch.
Theis conducted his 48-piece orchestra, played trombone and bass, spoke humbly between segments and animatedly tossed his charts to the stage floor throughout the performance. He allowed his players, and particularly his vocalists, to take the limelight. He stepped aside when violinists Anthony Blea and Mads Tolling went head-to-head in the dual jazz improvisation “Blea vs. Tolling”; when rappers Lyrics Born, Aima, Dublin, Seneca and Karyn Paige evoked the Mission District in “Community 2.0”; and when DJ Aspect McCarthy scratched along to beatbox breakdowns while the brass section swelled and ebbed dramatically.
On the surface, Brass, Bows & Beats is akin to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in that it brings a genre associated with black music into the symphonic realm. Theis does the same for hip-hop with Brass, Bows and Beats, but a closer cousin is Gordon Jenkins’ 1949 vignette Manhattan Tower, in which a great city is realized through a work of music that feels as alive as the city itself. Without a doubt, Brass, Bows & Beats is the sound of San Francisco in 2009; intelligent, soulful and diverse.
Once the official symphony was over, a second, looser set opened with an Astor Piazzolla song featuring Colin Hogan on the accordion. Joe Bagale brought the house down with his soul cry “Love Song,” and Jon Monahan conducted Eric Garland’s “Arc Line.” Those awaiting a party-rocking amalgam—in line with the Jazz Mafia’s many nights at Bruno’s—were rewarded near the end when the intensity level was raised markedly by Lyrics Born, who had been a small accessory to the first set.
Working the front of the stage, Lyrics Born brought the entire Palace of Fine Arts to its feet with full-orchestra versions of his own album tracks. A slow, sultry “Over You” and the hands-in-the-air “Hott 2 Deff” balanced the serious nature of the first set; the veteran Bay Area rapper then joined a full-frontal freestyle by all six vocalists for a television crime drama “Streets of San Francisco / Theme from S.W.A.T.” medley, arranged by Jeanne Geiger, that thrillingly increased in tempo toward the euphoric finish of a great night.
Attention, rest of the world outside the Bay Area! Adam Theis and the Jazz Mafia: Recognize!
Woke up yesterday and groaned at Pitchfork’s top albums, unsurprising since they lost all credibility with The Knife in 2006. Read about the recording industry’s strange new stance on downloading, which is to rely on Internet providers to do their dirty work for them. Was amused at the Phoenix Theater announcing the banning of hyphy shows, which is a brilliant maneuver, on par with announcing the banning of raves.
Flipped on the radio for Face the Music with Scott Mitchell and Frank Hayhurst, on KRSH. Laughed at the end of the show, when Frank presented Scott with a golden kazoo, since, alas, Scott is headed over to BOB-FM and will soon be replaced by Brian Griffith as the morning guy on the KRSH. Brian’ll be good and Scott’s been good, but man. I still miss Doug Smith.
Went to the downtown Post Office, where the holiday season has brought radio privileges for the counter staff. Was glad that instead of “Wonderful Christmastime” or “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, the clerks were stamping packages to “A Simple Twist of Fate,” by Bob Dylan. Dodged a car driving by playing the Youngbloodz-Procol Harum portion of Girl Talk’s Feed the Animals.
Got to work and read this wonderful piece of writing, regarding Leon Russell, by my friend John Beck. Felt the best kind of jealousy—I suspect that John is much more bound to editorial direction than myself, occasionally forced to write about music that he can’t personally get that excited about, and I love examining how he navigates total cowshit and turns it time and again into flowers. He’s good at it.
Read about the heavy metal singer who stabbed her guitarist for messing up a solo. Downloaded DJ Malarkey’s new Holiday mix to listen to while scouring club listings for New Years’ Eve information. Came across this lovely Christmas video of a drunk family partying their asses off around the tree, circa 1962, set to June Christy’s “The Merriest”:
(If you’re looking for a fantastic jazzy album of non-religious Christmas originals, call your local record store and pick up June Christy’s This Time of Year, just reissued a couple years ago.)
Had lunch at Hang Ah Dim Sum with the Love Level crew. Thought about Chinese opera and talked about Darker than Blue: Soul From Jamdown. Was reminded, by Mark and Gary, about KOME-FM and their street-sign stickers. Chatted about Backdoor Records. Thought about the late KPLS-FM and their even later cowboy-hat VW Bug.
Came back to work and gawked at the amazing Kate Wolf Festival 2009 lineup, with Emmylou Harris, Dave Alvin, Richard Thompson, Patty Griffin, Mavis Staples, and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Wrote a little bit about Adam Theis and his upcoming SFJAZZ show, whose excellent Spring season was also announced this week: McCoy Tyner, Allen Toussaint, Bill Frisell, Kenny Barron, James Carter, Tinariwen, Roy Hargrove, Chris Potter, Brad Mehldau, Mariza, Kenny Burrell, Michael Feinstein and Branford Marsalis, among others.
Went to dinner at Fitch Mountain Eddie’s with my dad, where Richelle Hart and John Youngblood performed songs like “Summertime” and “Women Be Wise.” Talked a lot of shit about Ticketmaster, only to have the guy at the next table introduce himself as a guy who works for Ticketmaster. Wished him luck with that whole massive-debt-and-getting-dumped-by-Live-Nation thing.
Then: headed to the Raven Theater for the Bobs, who were as entertaining and awe-inspiring as they were when I last saw them at the Raven Theater in 1989. Was billed as the “Sleigh Bobs Ring” holiday show, containing plenty of Christmas numbers—”Christmas in L.A.,” “Christmas in Jail,” and an insane new song sung from the point of view of the Virgin Mary, “What Is This Thing Inside Me?”
Old chestnuts were dusted off, like “My, I’m Large” and “Boy Around the Corner,” and all the new ones like “Get Your Monkey off My Dog,” “Title of the Song,” “Imaginary Tuba” sounded great. Closed with “Christmastime is Here,” which I’m glad is becoming a holiday classic. Haven’t paid much attention to the Bobs in the last 20 years, but I was simultaneously buckled over with laugher, googly-eyed with amazement, and heartened that they still hang out in the lobby afterwards, chatting with all their weird fans. Thanks for keeping it up, guys.
Came home and listened to Booker Ervin, Madlib, No Age and Lucy Ann Polk. (Not Van Morrison, like grouchy Joel Selvin.) Wondered if real life was more important than music, or if the two are actually the same thing. Opted for the latter. Did the dishes and hummed Frank Sinatra. Went to bed.
Now in its 26th year, SFJAZZ has been key in bringing both older jazz legends and younger jazz luminaries to San Francisco audiences in a number of venues around the city. The fall season of SFJAZZ lasts over a month, but to highlight the festival’s diversity and taste, I chose to attend three consecutive nights showcasing the breadth of talent available in a short span. Two older stalwarts of the avant-garde, Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor, and two younger stars of the new breed, Eldar and Sophie Milman.
Oct. 23 – Archie Shepp at Herbst Theatre
On the first night, Archie Shepp gave a rare U.S. concert appearance at the Herbst Theatre. The Herbst Theatre is one of the finest locations utilized by SFJAZZ—it’s just the right size, the sound is good, and the theatre itself beautiful—and it befits legends like Dewey Redman or Andrew Hill, both of whom have played there in recent years. This was, it must be said, a very special treat for Shepp’s Bay Area fans, many of whom have waited years to see him in person, sustaining instead on repeated listenings of landmark albums like Fire Music, Attica Blues, and—appropriately—Live in San Francisco.
Shepp will probably live forever unfairly in the shadow of John Coltrane, who took the young saxophonist under his wing and signed him to Impulse Records. I say unfairly because it’s hard to imagine Coltrane, would he have lived, to be as carefree as Shepp has been after Coltrane’s death. In the years since, Shepp has played R&B, sung standards, and dabbled in funk.
Shepp is now 71, but right from the start of Thursday night’s show, he displayed that he is still in command of his horn. He also showed that after 40 years, he’s still not immune to Coltrane’s shadow; nearly every song had its own Coltrane counterpart.
A quick-paced opener placed Shepp in explorative sheets-of-sound mode, while his band drove a pounding modal form with intensity and skill; it could have easily fit on Meditations. Shepp then sang a relaxed “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” which could have found a home on John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Other moments throughout the night drew inevitable comparisons to Kulu Sé Mama, Coltrane Plays the Blues, Coltrane’s Sound, and Lush Life.
But another essential way that Shepp has carried on Coltrane’s legacy is that his appearances are inseparable from the full emotional palette of the black experience in America. Beauty, fury, jubilation, humor and sorrow all play key roles in Shepp’s music. Shepp explains the unexplainable through his music; the feelings that words cannot contain. To hear him is to know a history of civil struggle and racial injustice.
Not everyone is a fan of this. During “Mama Rose,” which contained an intense poetic recitation about motherhood, love, riots, banana pudding, ex-cannibals, dreams and revolution, including the line “Your vagina split asymmetrically between the east and the west,” a group of people sitting in the balcony leaned in, consulted each other, and bailed.
After “Trippin’,” a 12-bar blues in which Shepp channeled James Brown’s epic wail in singing about canceling his email and cutting off his cell phone, Shepp announced that his contract with SFJAZZ called for an intermission. Any folks who might have left missed the best portion of the evening.
Opening his second set with “Ujamaa,” an incredible composition, Shepp gave his most intense solo of the concert while his first-rate band kept apace. Clutching the microphone and crooning in an Earl Coleman style, Shepp’s “Lush Life” was rendered with a wide-open verse, with Shepp conducting the band into a Latin-rhythm chorus. Billy Strayhorn famously wrote the ode to weariness when he was just 16, but Shepp turned it around and sang it giddily, at 71, as if he was a teenager. Switching to saxophone, he quoted “Well You Needn’t” in a solo that sometimes reached for high notes that didn’t come.
Shepp continued with a song written for his cousin, who was murdered in a street fight when he was 15—a rather happy song, actually—and closed with “Burning Bright,” containing an impeccable solo by the song’s composer, pianist Tom McClung.
The rush of applause was too strong to deny, and Shepp returned to center stage—minus drummer Ronnie Burrage—to play a breathy “In a Sentimental Mood,” the closing track of Live in San Francisco. Serene and delicate, it closed the evening perfectly, with a solo tag of dancing runs.
In the brief moment between the song’s end and the cascade of applause, an audience member yelled out, “You’re beautiful, Archie!” Simple and perfect.
Oct. 24 – Cecil Taylor at Grace Cathedral
The next night, it was Cecil Taylor at Grace Cathedral. Consecrated in 1965 by Duke Ellington, the massive church was blessed with jazz from the start, and for 22 of the past 26 years, SFJAZZ has been using it for concerts they call “Sacred Space.” Pharaoh Sanders is among those who’ve performed solo inside the cathedral, using no amplification whatsoever. The effect is stunning.
Taylor was announced to the stage, but for the first few minutes, all that could be heard was his voice over a loudspeaker.
“A S B M. A S B M. In Canal. In Canal You. In Canal You Long.”
It was Cecil Taylor, all right, doing his crazy Cecil Taylor thing and slowly making his way toward the piano.
“A Gene. A Gene Splits Into 28 Paragraphs. One Second Is Equal To 28.10 Electrons Equaling One Volt Is The Electric Motive In Proportion To Rhythm,” he continued, occasionally making long, gurgling sounds like a constipated alien.
When I last saw Cecil Taylor, at an SFJAZZ appearance at the Palace of Fine Arts in 2001, he held a similarly scattered conversation with himself; I thought, at the time, that he might have been studying some new form of chemistry. But no. Apparently he just likes to ramble.
Well-known for celebrating sharp bursts of percussive staccato passages, Taylor sat at the piano and instead drove straight into full-bodied, cascading playing, like he simply had too much music in his head gushing forth all at once. Inside the church, with sculptures of the crucifixion on the walls and a general atmosphere of reverence, the juxtaposition of religious tradition against fevered chaos was weird and funny.
Alas, the performance was stellar. What might have been choppy and percussive in any other venue came further together by Grace Cathedral’s natural seven-second reverb, and Taylor played off this effect, often hammering as many notes as possible into those seven seconds. His usual stabs in the gut became deep punches; his abrasive pelts of hail multiplying upon themselves into thunderstorms. His audible moaning and breathing echoed across the vault.
Taylor stopped playing, and the crowd applauded. A 40-something guy in a Hawaiian shirt sitting in front of us took a shot from his flask, and offered it to his considerably younger girlfriend, wearing a beret. She shook her head. Taylor then began playing again, in what sounded like a continuation of the exact same song.
When Cecil Taylor speaks in a foreign musical language of constant discord, are there ears enough to make out what he’s saying? The show was sold out, but it was unavoidable to contemplate just how many in the crowd viewed Taylor simply as a cultural curiosity. Between each of five pieces, Taylor shuffled and rearranged his sheet music, and it was hard to figure out why he even had it in the first place. He couldn’t possibly have been following it.
All of this sounds like a total dis, but it’s not. I’ve long loved Cecil Taylor—possibly because I can’t put into words exactly why—and even after a spate of souring on him as of late, he won me back into his world on Friday night. His total expressiveness, his thundering command, his emotional presence and his singular, powerful musical vision on display reawakened me to his brilliance. The venue certainly helped.
At the end of the set, Taylor tried to leave the stage but the applause was too strong. He sat down and played again, another short minute-and-a-half chapter in the neverending song, and finally shuffled his hunched, frail body to the back room of the church.
He stayed there for over an hour after the show was over, muttering in one giant monologue to a small group of assembled fans.
Oct. 25 – Eldar and Sophie Milman at Herbst Theatre
Back to the Herbst Theatre on Saturday night, for a decidedly younger lineup: 21-year-old piano prodigy Eldar and 24-year-old chanteuse Sophie Millman.
Eldar is famous for sounding like Art Tatum—rapid-fire runs, mind-boggling changes in key and tempo mid-song, a strong left hand—and his first number, “I Should Care,” demonstrated this in dazzling fashion. Everything that is great about Eldar was encapsulated in this first number; he played it antagonistically but respectfully, tackling the standard to the ground and working it over with hyperactive stride, incessant and precise runs, left-hand jabs and full-fingered clusters.
Though he could never possess Tatum’s swing, Eldar makes up for it in technical command; this is why he’s more Vladimir Horowitz than Oscar Peterson, and indeed, he has a very classical touch on the keys. But his mind is that of the explorer, the improviser who steps through every possibility at an unbelievable pace. Were it not for the opening melody, no one could have recognized “I Should Care” as imagined by Eldar.
This is what’s great about jazz: taking something old and making it new again. Unfortunately, Eldar’s focus shifted into presenting something new and making it sound old: his next song, “Insensitive,” was an original composition marked by unprovoked chord changes, a plodding form and little to no melody. This is how things stayed, as Eldar performed solely original compositions in the same vein for the rest of the set.
The third song, for example, featured nonstop busy drumming, jabbing bass lines, and a chaotic Eldar flying all over the piano. But the overall presentation was that of a garbled, very academic attempt, including the use of a 1970s-sounding synthesizer on top of the piano. If this is the way Eldar’s career is moving—away from dazzling standards and into post-post-fusion gobbledygook—then Sony must be nervous about their young star. Perhaps they’re trying to replace the Bad Plus. Maybe they’re trying to win over Rush fans. Who knows?
Up next was Sophie Milman, who, like Eldar, was born in the former Soviet Union. Moving to Israel at age 7 and then to Canada at age 16, Milman lived an upended youth in areas of global tumult, discovering solace in listening to American jazz records. This is her history, which she tells in magazine articles, on radio shows, and from the stage.
Luckily, she’s not just a good NPR story. She’s also a wonderful singer.
Opening with “It Might as Well be Spring” in a strapless leopard-print dress, red leather heels and gold earrings, Milman immediately hit all the right Anita O’Day-June Christy-Chris Connor notes with enough of her own style to warrant the comparison. Her appealing voice, airy but not overly husky, took on adventurous trills and jumps. She conducted her band, whooped at their solos, snapped her fingers and constantly jittered her arms and tapped her heels.
Milman had just spent a week at the Blue Note in New York with Eldar—they really are a curious co-billing, other than the “young” and “Soviet” angle—and she was glad to finally have some time in San Francisco. “You guys are very, very lucky,” she remarked at one point. “We’re going home to Toronto to blizzards.”
“People Will Say We’re in Love” was delightful, and a subtle vibrato eked into Milman’s voice during “I Concentrate on You.” Then Milman told the story of her life, and how she never fit in with the other kids in Israel who couldn’t understand her obsession with jazz, and dedicated the next number “to all the kids growing up who used to pick on me.” It is a song, she explained, that she sings at every performance.
“Bein’ Green,” as made famous by Kermit the Frog, is not a terrible song. But it is essentially a sad song, and despite Milman’s familiarity with the tune, it showed her emotional limitations. “Bein’ Green” is one of those curiosities that works in the hands of, say, Frank Sinatra when he’s 63—but not so much in the young, peppy hands of Milman.
“Here’s a great Bruce Springsteen song,” Milman then announced, and “I’m on Fire” continued the feeling that Milman might occasionally be in over her head. “I’m on Fire” is a creepy song—the pleading of a tortured stalker to ravage the untouched beauty of a young girl. Completely changed from the original, with minor-key chords, the arrangement brought out that creepiness. But it felt like Milman let the arrangement do all the work—she sang it sultry rather than tormented.
But these were unimportant diversions from what Milman does best. Redemption was found in a soulful, “Maiden Voyage”—esque arrangement of “Love for Sale,” and Milman once again had the crowd in the palm of her hands. After all the sleepy Norah Jones tranquilizing on the “jazz” charts for the last eight years, it’s nice to see an inventive young singer bringing back flair and pizzazz to jazz singing. Here’s hoping more folks discover her talent.
So there you go—three days of the SFJAZZ festival. The complete schedule for SFJAZZ, including teasers for their upcoming Spring season, can be found at their official website.
Just got off the phone with old pal and former Santa Rosa resident Adam Theis, who’s meeting with Mos Def tonight to discuss their upcoming collaboration for the Band Shell Music Summit in San Francisco. If you’d’ve told me eight years ago that Adam Theis would be working with Mos Def, I’d say you were crazy. But then I’d think about it, and I’d totally believe you, because Theis is among the most talented and dedicated musicians I know.
Here’s the deal: Theis’ Realistic Orchestra is the backing band for Mos Def in a free show on October 18 at the Golden Gate Park Bandshell, between the De Young Museum and the new Academy of Sciences. You can’t just show up, though—you have to go to this website, lie about your income, feel guilty about not taking public transportation and say if you have an energy efficient lightbulb in your house or not. Kinda weird, but whatever—print out the voucher, and you’re in.
Theis says he and Mos Def are working on about a collaborative half-hour set with the Realistic Orchestra for the event, and is quick to point out that the rest of the day’s lineup—with Mingus Amungus, Lavay Smith, Kim Nalley, and some dude from Dave Matthews’ band—should be pretty great as well. The next night, the collaboration hits the stage again at Ruby Skye to benefit the Blue Bear School of Music. Tickets are $50. Go to the free thing instead.
Incidentally, Theis is also working on a two-hour opus commissioned by a prestigious Emerging Composer grant from the Gerbode-Hewlett Foundation, to be premiered next spring as part of the SFJAZZ festival by a 50-piece orchestra. No shit: a 50-piece orchestra. And all this after arranging horns for Lyrics Born’s last album, and the Mighty Underdogs’ last album, and J-Boogie’s last album, and oh, pretty much dominating the Mission District every Tuesday night at Bruno’s.