Today it was announced that after seven years, the Sonoma Jazz Festival is pulling the plug. As a jazz fan, I have no immediate reaction to the news other than this: good riddance.
I would have had no real problem with the Sonoma Jazz Festival if the organizers had simply dropped the word “jazz” from its name. But they refused to do so. Instead, the Sonoma Jazz Festival siphoned shamelessly from the cultural cachet of the word “jazz,” presented wheezing baby-boomer classic rock acts and swirled it all down with Cabernet and a promise of doing good for the local economy and school music programs.
Yes, they donated money to local schools. But in booking the festival, they rarely honored their own mission statement to “present and preserve jazz.” Their headliners included Sheryl Crow, John Fogerty, Steve Winwood, Crosby Stills & Nash, Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller, LeAnn Rimes, Michael McDonald, Bonnie Raitt, Gipsy Kings, Chris Isaak, Joe Cocker and Kool & the Gang.
Nobody but an idiot or an asshole would ever call these acts jazz. It’d be like a “Sonoma Hip-Hop Festival” with the Barenaked Ladies, Limp Bizkit and Jack Johnson. Or a “Sonoma Farm-to-Table Festival” with In-n-Out Burger and Taco Bell. A “Sonoma Film Festival” that screened reality TV shows.
By continuing to call their festival a jazz festival, the Colorado-based organizers insulted the art form of jazz and, by association, embarrassed Sonoma County. It only got worse with the piddly concession of adding a “+” to the name. More then a few local jazz musicians I know joked that the festival was “Sonoma Jazz Minus,” except they weren’t really jokes. Jokes are supposed to be funny.
This is not to denigrate the worthy efforts of many locals who worked hard to make the festival what it was, some of whom actively pushed to get the name changed. And I would be remiss not to mention the few jazz and jazz-related acts that played the big tent in the “Field of Dreams”—Herbie Hancock, Harry Connick Jr., Diana Krall, and openers like Julian Lage and Hiromi come to mind.
But they all seemed like aberrant curiosities in Sonoma, politely endured instead of appreciated. In 2008, after Herbie Hancock opened his set with the Blue Note jazz classic “Cantaloupe Island,” an exodus of half-tipsy middle-aged wine country dilettantes who’d been trained that Michael McDonald is “jazz” filled the aisles and headed to their SUVs.
My very first experience in the cavernous, 3,000-seat tent also comes to mind—plunking down $110 for seats far away from the stage for Tony Bennett—and how it was marred by a well-heeled woman behind me blathering loudly on her phone, too bored to go through the motions of paying attention to one of America’s greatest song stylists. She eventually stumbled off into the wine lounge and never came back. Looks like the Sonoma Jazz Festival is following suit.
She’s the voice of a thousand dentist’s offices, the definition of “adult contemporary” and possibly the furthest thing from jazz that’s ever headlined the Sonoma Jazz+ Festival.
Nevertheless, Sheryl Crow, toting a new soul-tinged album, 100 Miles From Memphis, could easily have been poised last night to win over a new crowd. She hired the tremendous guitarist Doyle Bramhall II for her touring band. In interviews, she spoke of influences like Curtis Mayfield, the Allman Brothers, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. Her show was even sponsored not by the local adult contemporary station 100.1-FM KZST, who have played Crow’s innocuous hit songs every day for ten years, but by the Americana station 95.9-FM KRSH.
But Sheryl Crow is no Aretha. In a set frontloaded with material from 100 Miles From Memphis, Crow demonstrated last night that no matter what accoutrements an ungifted artist dons, the essence remains flat. She struggled to imbue her vocals with soul and wavered on poorly executed harmonies, even on standbys like “Every Day Is a Winding Road.” She played a variety of instruments, from a vintage Wurlitzer organ to an accordion to guitar, but her watered-down material dictated that her immensely talented band play at one-tenth of their ability.
It was enough to suggest to even the open-minded that the singer, who gave away free Tom’s toothpaste samples at the festival gate and hawked her cookbook at the merch stand, isn’t so much an artist as a brand; a lifestyle choice of the culturally trepidatious; a meeting area where nothing happens. “Sweet Rosalyn,” a song Crow said was inspired by a strip club in New Orleans, was free of sweat, gyration or danger. A political song, “Redemption Day”—introduced with some combination of the words “Bosnia,” “Rwanda” and “Hilary Clinton”—came off as obligatory at best.
Crow’s banter was playful (“Thank God the world didn’t end today,” Crow said, acknowledging the supposed May 21 Rapture, “I’m so happy, I had a few things planned”) and her fanbase stayed seated and largely calm until the block of hits at the end. That’s when drunken air-guitaring and booty-shaking ensued in a celebration of Bermuda shirts, cosmetic surgery and arrhythmic dancing to guaranteed pleasers “Steve McQueen,” “If It Makes You Happy,” “Every Day Is A Winding Road,” “Soak Up the Sun” and “All I Wanna Do.”
The set closed with a barn-burning “I Shall Believe,” which allowed the band to finally unlock its potential, but it didn’t cleanse the off taste of the night. It’s one thing to book a non-jazz artist at a jazz festival, but it’s another thing to book an affront to the creative process. “We had a great day here. We want to move here,” Crow said at one point, unconvincingly. “We want to only play jazz festivals from now on.”
If that were truly the case—if she really wanted to immerse herself in jazz—then Sheryl Crow would have a mountain of research and miles of catching up to do. Instead, she’s touring this summer with Kid Rock. Enough said.
Jazz lovers can pick their jaws off the floor with the announcement of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival (June 4–13), which delivers a rich lineup of vibrant jazz talent. Charlie Haden leads a group with Ravi Coltrane and Geri Allen; Jason Moran plays with Bill Frisell; and red-hot sensation Esperanza Spalding returns. Other names include George Cables, Dafnis Prieto, Pete Apfelbaum and more.
This year’s Sonoma Jazz+ Festival (May 21–23) features headliners Crosby, Stills & Nash, Earth, Wind & Fire and Elvis Costello & the Sugarcanes. Openers Lizz Wright, Poncho Sanchez and the Neville Brothers also appear. Hope for jazz springs obligatory when Costello will doubtless sing Charles Mingus’ “Weird Nightmare.” . . . The Kate Wolf Festival (June 25–27) has Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, Greg Brown, Little Feat, David Grisman, the Waifs and many more up at Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville. . . . The Harmony Festival (June 11–13) has confirmed some initial performers, including Steel Pulse, Galactic, Rebelution, Slightly Stoopid, Dweezil Zappa, Jai Uttal, the Jazz Mafia, the Expendables and Fishbone. A “very special headliner” will be announced this week.
While the Santa Rosa Symphony hosts Ute Lemper singing Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins (May 8–10), the Wells Fargo Center bounces back from recent personnel shakeups with John Prine (April 11), David Spade (May 20), the Barenaked Ladies (May 25) and the still-fantastic Smokey Robinson (May 28). The cozy Napa Valley Opera House brings Elvis Costello playing a solo evening (April 8th) as well as jazz guitar legend Pat Metheny (April 25) performing with an ensemble of animatronic instruments controlled by Metheny’s guitar. Crazy!
The Sonoma County Blues Festival, long a staple of the Sonoma County Fair, moves to the Earle Baum Center (July 31), which already has headliners Dave Alvin and James McMurtry confirmed for its EarleFest in September. . . . Resurrected local favorites Victims Family play a free in-store to celebrate the re-release of White Bread Blues at the Last Record Store for Record Store Day (April 17). . . . Fret-tapping phenomenon Kaki King plays the Mystic Theatre (May 20) and Joan Jett rides the popularity wave of The Runaways starring Kristen Stewart by playing at the Sonoma-Marin Fair (June 25).
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.
(Note to the Reader: For this installment of City Sound Inertia, we welcome guest reviewer Bob Meline! A finish carpenter by trade, longtime music fan, and secretly, a solid bass player, he’s also my dad—and one of the greatest guys I know.)
Acknowledging that early in her career she would “never have been able to set foot” in a tent housing a jazz festival, Bonnie Raitt very aptly closed the four day run at Sonoma Jazz+, constantly educating the audience in musical history and, in the process, giving the capacity crowd the party they were looking for.
While the festival seems to be moving more and more away from traditional jazz, Raitt brought an amazing band and some well-suited musical guests in paying tribute to blues, rock, reggae, r&b and jazz—“all the tributaries and roots of not just jazz,” she said, “but what we call good music.”
Bonnie Raitt has worked through the years with drummer Ricky Fattar and bassist extraordinaire James “Hutch” Hutchinson, but the addition a few years ago of George Marinelli on guitar has become the perfect compliment to Raitt’s slide guitar and rock and rhythmic style—expertly filling the voids with single notes, short riffs and all-out leads without taking the attention away from center stage. But by far, Raitt’s band has profited the most with the addition of Jon Cleary on keyboards. His swampy New Orleans jazz/roots/funk style is the base from which he can also deliver rock, r&b and even those dark, smoky bar ballads, wrenching true human emotion out of every single note from his keyboard.
Raitt’s set list drew from all along the timeline of her lengthy career and showcased a varied cross section of musical styles. While Raitt has not written the majority of her recorded material, she has a gift for choosing other artists’ songs, no matter what the genre, and making them uniquely her own. Bonnie’s all out rockin’ version of John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” was early in the set, soon followed by the r&b gem from Isaac Hayes, “Your Good Thing (Is About to End).” She introduced it as a song about “how messed up love can be—and I’ve been makin’ a livin’ off it ever since.”
Working some reggae into the evening, she did “Premature,” her recent duet with Toots and the Maytals, calling Toots Hibbert “a great songwriter and friend.” She then brought out her first guest of the evening, Maia Sharp, duetting on a song from her recent Souls Alike album, “I Don’t Want Anything to Change.”
Returning to her self-titled debut album of 1971, she paid tribute to the pioneering blues singer of the 20’s, Sippie Wallace, performing an acoustic slide version of “Women Be Wise.” Cleary’s honky tonk piano solo was a perfect fit and enthralled even Raitt—who waltzed over and laid her elbow on the piano, propped her chin in her hand and seemed as amazed as the rest of the audience at Cleary’s ability.
As advertised, slide master Roy Rogers made his first appearance on stage next, doubling up with Raitt on an absolutely incendiary acoustic version of Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues.” Raitt is one of the better slide guitarists in the business, but even she was thrilled to have Rogers alongside showcasing his unique style. After the song, and the well-deserved standing ovation, she remarked to Rogers, “Your wife is a lucky woman…”
Raitt included John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” bringing Sharp back on stage to join the band, the four backup vocalists soaring on the choruses. The lead track from her most recent album, “I Will Not Be Broken,” finished with a fade into some soft gospel vocal vamps, which led into “Something to Talk About, ” the first of two roadhouse rocking set closers. Exhorting drummer Fattar to “Keep it going, Ricky,” the band finished with “Love Sneakin’ up On You.” The all-ages audience, long ago tired of doing Dan Hicks’ “barstool boogie in their seats,” had filled the aisles in all manner of dance and wasn’t at all ready for the party to be over. Thunderous applause filled the huge but now-intimate tent and brought the band back for a four-song encore.
Noting that it was “not exactly a dance tune,” Raitt, absent her guitar and perched on a stool with a single spot accenting her flame red hair, rode Cleary’s sensuous keyboard work into the beautiful “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” While known for her guitar chops and rough edged vocals, Raitt took everyone on a spine-tingling soul search for love never returned, the raw passion fueled no doubt by having admitted in the past that she’d been on “both sides of this one.” And if Bonnie’s vocals didn’t break your heart, Cleary’s closing piano solo finished the job and brought the hard truth of the title into plain view.
Staying in the smoky bar-like vein, and again working with Sharp, Raitt came as close to jazz as she would get on the night through Sharp’s “The Bed I Made.” As suited as Raitt’s vocal intensity is to the song, it was again the musicians who shone, Hutchinson working a nice bass melody, Cleary wringing emotion out of every note and Sharp adding a sexy, breathy baritone sax solo to close out the tune.
Kicking it back into high gear, Raitt strapped on her guitar and pronounced, “Yes, I’m ready!” and brought back Rogers, the song’s co-writer, for their thumping and chunking “Gnawin’ on It,” going shoulder to shoulder with him so she could watch him “blow the windows out of the place.” And that he did.
Always paying tribute and giving credit to others, Raitt dedicated the last song to the late Phil Elwood, the longtime jazz/blues reviewer for the San Francisco Examiner and later the Chronicle, calling him “one of the best friends music ever had.” And in her unending praise to those who paved the way for her, she introduced a tune she’s done through the years with Charles and Ruth Brown, “Never Make Your Move Too Soon.” A rocking, rollicking shuffle blues, it was the perfect opportunity for Raitt to let each of the musicians shine one more time, including her brother, David Raitt, on the harmonica.
In welcoming the sold-out audience at the start—and make no mistake, this show was the draw of this year’s festival—Raitt, performing close to her real home, said she felt like she was with family. No doubt the crowd, as it reluctantly filed out, was feeling the kinship—“Souls Alike,” if you will—and hoping for a reunion much, much sooner than later.
— Robert Meline
“I’m all pumped up full of steroids,” croaked a bronchitis-ridden Diana Krall to a sold-out Sonoma crowd on Saturday night, “so you’re gonna have to put up with my shitty piano playing the whole show.”
A woman in the audience yelled something about smoking.
“Oh—do you want me to stop talking?” asked Krall. “Is it like nails on a chalkboard. . . or too sexy you can’t stand it?”
It speaks volumes about Krall’s immense popularity that during an absolutely classic performance in Sonoma, her singing voice never wavered in the slightest—in spite of the fact that Krall’s speaking voice, which offered an ongoing stream of self-deprecating quips, sounded more like Edward G. Robinson. One could interpret this either as the resilience of a seasoned vocalist or one of the fringe benefits of having, in Kralls’ own words, a “smoky, sultry, cool sound.” Bronchitis would level most singers, but for Krall—who along with nighttime film-noir pianist-singers Holly Cole and Patricia Barber rarely, if ever, pushes her vocal chords—it never once hindered the show.
Though Krall acknowledged her bronchitis (announcing and then slipping into a Tom Waits impersonation during “Exactly Like You”), most of the time it worked in her favor. A fading whisper of the word “darling” during a spellbinding solo version of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” a particular husk to “The Look of Love”—these touches only added to what she does best.
With a few stride-piano intros—to “Frim Fram Sauce” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You”—that faltered greatly in tempo, Krall’s piano playing may have been lessened, but not enough to keep her from quoting Charlie Parker songs in solos which played well into her rhythm section’s impeccable backing. But it was her descriptions of motherhood and of breastfeeding her two children—she had twins a year and a half ago with Elvis Costello—which truly tickled the mostly middle-aged crowd.
“They’re both grown up now,” she joked. “They’re out in the hotel playing cards and smoking cigars. They look like their dad!” (“I’m sorry!” shouted the woman in front of me.)
At the end of the night, after a practically begged-for encore at the hands of a long standing ovation, Krall had triumphed. She even cast aside her sad, tortured persona for a split second—at the end of the bowed bass solos, sharp rim shots and dazzling guitar lines during the night’s closer “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” the 43-year-old mother squirmed on the piano bench, opened her mouth, and squealed like a little girl.
Photos and set list below.
Taylor Eigsti talked nervously. Wouldn’t you, in front of a 3,000-seat tent with only a few hundred people in it? His buddy, Julian Lage, looked at him, looked out into the expanse. Laughed.
Then Eigsti sat down, punching out spare, discordant notes on his piano, as if in a musical deterioration of how eerie the whole thing was. Lage responded by picking out high-pitched chirps from his guitar strings below the bridge, and eventually, Ben Williams and Eric Harland sidled in. Out of all this, a song eventually self-sculpted: Cole Porter’s “I Love You,” full of wit, verve, dramatics and a fleeting debt to Bill Evans.
Another amazing night by Taylor Eigsti and Julian Lage was underway.
For some reason, I turn into a 1960s television host when talking about Eigsti and Lage. These kids, they’re a real gas, just righteously groovy. I go ape for ‘em, you dig?
I wasn’t alone: at the finish of the group’s next tune, “Time Lines,” a thundering, raging storm of full-fingered jazz, the crowd jumped immediately to their feet. There’s something so beautiful and weird and gratifying about watching a huge tent that’s only 30-percent full going absolutely bananas for the relative unknowns, and especially when those unknowns are ruling as hard as Eigsti and Lage.
Eigsti is 23, Lage is 20, and people can talk all they want about young players only studying theory and technique and recycling old ideas in place of emotion—it’s just not true with these two. They’ve got an emotional depth that goes acres deep. I’d seen this on display as a duo before, but with Williams and Harland they were a powerhouse. Though the two did play some duets together, the bluesy “And What if I Don’t” by Herbie Hancock and the original composition “True Colors”—and offered an introspective take on the surprise indie-rock tune of the set, the Eels’ “Not Ready Yet” (!)—the two truly shined in a full-force setting.
Through every open door, both Lage and Eigsti tiptoed carefully; the majority of their solos began with sparse hesitation, a note here, a run there. Feeling out the field. Wayne Shorter’s “Deluge” saw Lage open his solo with palm-muting intermittent bent notes on the fretboard, which slowly unraveled into more loosely muted hammer-ons, which eventually unraveled into a full-speed-ahead trek both in and out of the scale, going by so fast it was impossible to completely grasp.
Harland must have been in on this plan, too, because he’d take eights like this: 1) rubbing his stick end on the bell of his ride, and 2) same thing but with some bass drum, and 3) rim shots mixed with toms building up to 4) ending by wailing away. Mas y mas.
Yes, these dizzyingly executed extended crescendos abounded, even amongst all four members. “Caravan,” the set’s closer, opened with what Lage calls “my only toy”—a delay pedal, used with flat-fifths and slides and layered rhythms—while Eigsti reached inside the grand piano and dampened the strings with one hand, pounding out fast notes with the other. I’m of the belief that there’s no lousy way to play “Caravan,” but this was on some other shit entirely; Eigsti’s marathon solo, in particular, was unleashed like he was hungry, ravenous, stabbing at the keys. It was so impactful that the crowd started cheering in the middle and didn’t let up until the triumphant end minutes later.
Eigsti’s group—this same quartet—is playing tonight at Yoshi’s in Oakland and tomorrow at Yoshi’s in San Francisco. Go, go, go. Also, Eigsti has a new album out this week called Let It Come To You, and it features incredible performances that come damn close to capturing his live show. So well, in fact, that I’ll forgive the goatee.
Also, be sure to check out Lage’s trio when they open for Charlie Haden and Joshua Redman at the Raven Theater on June 7 as part of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival.
Herbie Hancock is a jazz legend. It’s a fact. You can’t strip him of it.
At what’s billed as a jazz festival, you’d think people would be into Herbie Hancock. But after his first song last night, the Blue Note jazz classic “Cantaloupe Island,” an exodus of half-tipsy middle-aged Wine Country dilettantes who’ve been trained that Michael McDonald is “jazz” filled the aisles and headed to their SUVs.
This, I’d think, might be slightly embarrassing for the Sonoma Jazz+ Festival, who have suffered as many exhortations to simply change their name as Hilary Clinton has to drop out of the primaries. Frankly, I’m overwhelmingly for it. If you’re going to represent yourself as a “jazz” festival but then book mostly R&B, blues, or pop acts, you’re not only insulting an original American art form but also, I might add, essentially defying a Congressional decree calling for the recognition and preservation of jazz as a rare and valuable national American treasure.
Herbie Hancock, along with Julian Lage and Taylor Eigsti, represents the true jazz minority at this year’s festival, and Hancock occupies a decidedly unique place in jazz, however mainstream it may be. Though most of what he’s done lately falls into classical or pop realms, he has constantly pushed, in his music, the jazz ideal of exploration and possibility. No amount of Starbucks-friendly collaborations with Corrine Bailey Rae can taint that fact, and in a twisted way, his forays into funk fusion, industrial breakdance music, and other non-jazz idioms actually support it. If jazz is a journey, then Hancock is an overarching participant, straying from the designated path with equal parts vision and experimentation.
Example: while Hancock introduced his second number last night, the equally classic “Watermelon Man,” he announced that he and his quintet would tackle it with a few variations. First, they’d incorporate a 17-beat count into the song, based on African music. Second, they’d introduce one extra beat at a time, until they reached 17 beats. Oh, and another thing: they’d bring out a DJ to play turntables on the song.
The exodus continued.
What followed was an entirely creative take on “Watermelon Man,” with bassist Marcus Miller holding down the solid groove while Hancock switched from grand piano, to synthesizer, to. . . wait a second. . . a Key-tar?! Yep—Hancock and his harmonica player traded harp and Key-tar licks, the DJ threw in some scratching and the guitarist played wild octave-pedal scales. In its offbeat and original way, it was jazz—and the idea of jazz—at its finest, and to be fair to the crowd, the multitudes of people who stuck around gave him the first of many deserved standing ovations.
A trio of Joni Mitchell songs from Hancock’s what-the-hell Grammy Award-winning Album of the Year River: The Joni Letters followed, with vocalists Lizz Wright and Sonya Kitchell delivering stellar versions of “Edith and the Kingpin” and “The River,” the latter ending with angelic harmonies between the two. However, Kitchell’s take on “All I Want,” a breathy, sexy rendition, was a misfire compared to Mitchell’s laughing, playful original.
I actually listened to Mitchell’s Blue before coming to the show, and “All I Want” is such a great, weird dichotomy of a song—it’s full of longing and loneliness, but it’s also buoyant and optimistic, like Joni’s looking towards the day that she’ll be happy, feel free and knit sweaters. As the listener, you think that day could be tomorrow and the sweater she’ll knit is just for you. Kitchell sang it instead like there was no hope in sight—just a lot of self-wallowing and bluesy inflection.
Hancock himself played fantastically, but the greater impression left was that of a scientist in a jazz lab, professorially dissecting each number with sheet music in hand and explaining how the quintet would approach each new discovery. Introducing “Jean Pierre,” a vehicle for bassist Miller, he even joked about the song’s sketchy genesis. “This is a composition by the great Miles Davis,” he said, to scattered cheers. “You think Miles wrote it alone? Who knows!” (for further reading on Davis’ notorious habit of plagiarizing other’s songs, I recommend the book Shades of Blue by Bill Moody).
With Hancock’s classic Blue Note era covered by “Canteloupe Island” and “Watermelon Man,” with the Headhunters era covered via the encore “Chameleon,” and with the pop era covered with the Joni Mitchell songs, there was only one stone left unturned in Hancock’s set. I would have never thought he’d play it, not in a million years.
“Are you ready?!” he shouted. “For the first time in 25 years, are. . . you. . . ready?!”
And with that, he strapped on the Key-tar, motioned to the DJ, and led the band in a run-down of the great breakdance jam I used to backspin to when I was nine years old: “Rockit.” The crowd erupted. It wasn’t exactly jazz, but it felt good, and all egregious festival misnomers aside, that’s what any good festival is supposed to offer.
“There’s people wonderin’,” said an unstoppable Al Green on stage in Sonoma last night, “if the Reverend Al’s still got it!”
And then, to answer his own hypothesis, in the high falsetto that’s conceived thousands of babies and still melts ladies’ hearts:
With an 11-piece band, a hailstorm of energy and verve and most importantly, a voice that’s still pure quicksilver, Al Green at that point had already proved to the Sonoma crowd that he’s definitely still got it. The exchange existed, rather, as part of an extended love-fest with the audience—showy but unscripted—that started with his passing out roses to the ladies in the front row and continued in rambunctious call-and-response fashion like the Baptist masses that Green conducts most Sundays to the public at his church outside of Memphis.
“I love you,” he said. “I love you. I love you. I love Sonoma.” Then again, singing: “I love Sonoma. I’m gonna make my own song. I looove Sonoommaa. I looove Sonoomm“—the falsetto kicked in—”AAAAAAAAAHHHH!”
The feeling, to say the least, was mutual. “Let’s Stay Together” inspired a bumrush to the stage, putting security in a tizzy, and “Here I Am” caused massive spillover outside of the too-small cordoned dance areas down the side of the festival’s gargantuan tent. During “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” Green held the congregation spellbound in a masterful, heart-wrenching torpor; that one song alone boosted last night’s lovemaking in Sonoma County by 20 percent.
During Green’s high-energy, 50-minute set, there were only a few clunky moments. Green barreled through an unnecessary medley of classic soul hits—”I Can’t Help Myself,” “My Girl,” “Bring it on Home to Me,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “The Dock of the Bay,” “Wonderful World”—which would have been much better had he picked one and sang it in its entirety (I nominate “Bring it on Home to Me.”) This led into a lacking “Tired of Being Alone” featuring Green singing pieces of the song but mostly playing with the crowd while his 11-piece band vamped in the background, and after an extended “Love and Happiness” closed the set, Green’s backup singer lamely ran down a Wikipedia entry of his achievements: “Al Green, ladies and gentlemen! Member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! Member of the Soul Hall of Fame! Member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame!”
In the overall picture, however, these details will have to accept their status as minor gripes, fully overshadowed by Green’s talent, personality, legend, and desire to give all that he is to his audience. “The lady back there that’s the head of this whole thing made me promise to keep my little ‘A’ on the stage,” he said at one point, clearly delighted with himself as he walked like a disobedient child down the front steps to his adoring crowd, “and here I am. . . on my way down again!” And then the falsetto, again, directly into the eyes of a sea of swooning females.
Yes. Al Green has still got it.
“I think my favorite line in the song is ‘She’s a lady,'” I said. “I mean, ‘she’ wouldn’t be anything but a lady, right?”
“No, because ‘lady’ is used as a term of distinction. Not all females are ladies. Plus, that’s only half the line: it goes, ‘She’s a lady that you really want to know.'”
“Oh, right! ‘Somehow I’ve got to let my feelings show. . .'”
We were strolling towards the tent in Sonoma, talking about “Fresh,” the still-stupendous Kool & the Gang jam which played for one blissful summer on constant repeat in my house growing up. I was 10 when the album Emergency came out, and I spent hours staring into the cover, checking out Kool & the Gang’s ’80s outfits, thinking the same thoughts that any 10-year-old thinks when they stare into an album cover: Those dudes are in a band. That’s so cool.
So I suppose we could have left happy after Kool & the Gang hit the stage in Sonoma with “Fresh.” But the song, complete with synchronized dance movements and choice poses, heralded what I’d figured would be the case with Kool & the Gang: they were out to deliver a totally scripted, well-oiled show of role-playing and crowd pleasing. This can be seen, in a lot of ways, a schlocky Vegas gimmick. But in another light, it’s also a lost art in the history of R&B, where great “show bands” or “stage bands”—even small, regional funk ensembles—used to never hit the stage without a perfectly-rehearsed set of joint-jumpin’ dances, perfectly executed breakdowns, and sewn-up patter.
To a standing-room crowd out on the dance floor, many of them in disco outfits and huge afro wigs, Kool & the Gang put on a dazzling show, not ignoring the early heavy funk that established them in the first place: “Jungle Boogie,” naturally, “Funky Stuff,” of course, and the song that every desperate DJ leans on to get people moving out on the floor—”Hollywood Swinging.”
Lite-rock hits like “Joanna” and “Cherish” mixed with disco hits like “Get Down on It,” which led into the most predictable encore in the universe: “Celebration.”
Dare I say that a little bit of jazz even crept into their show?
During “Funky Stuff,” everyone in the band except the guitarist took extended solos. Later on, saxophonist Dennis Thomas mentioned how they’d all grown up on Miles Davis and John Coltrane. And. . . well, okay, that’s about it. The rest was pure boogie.
The tent was really going nuts dancing and screaming, which Kool & the Gang acknowledged during the calypso-flavored “Island Shake,” bringing select participants from the crowd to strut their stuff on stage. First it was two ladies—you can see the results in the photo above—and then it was two guys, who actually used their time in the spotlight to square dance. I’m not kidding.
“Those guys,” the singer joked, “ain’t never been to the island.”
P.S. My 10-year-old self can’t let the moment pass: you gotta check out the video for “Misled,” from Emergency, starring Kool & the Gang when they still had JT Taylor singing. Part Thriller, part Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s an amazing (and really, really low-budget) time capsule of MTV during the Reagan era: