Top 20 Shows of 2011

Live Review and Photos: Public Enemy at Yoshi’s

Posted by: on Jan 16, 2011 | Comments (1)

“When we first heard we were gonna play Yoshi’s,” said Chuck D last night, after “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” opened the set, “we knew it was a historic jazz club. We said, ‘We know we can’t rage against the machine in that motherfucker.’ What do I do, wear my Sam Cooke suit? Do some Sonny Rollins shit?”

It must be a common question for the many who’ve played Yoshi’s since it began regularly hosting hip-hop shows a couple years ago, from names like the Pharcyde and Foreign Legion to Mos Def and De La Soul: how to adapt? Or is it even required, since Yoshi’s seems to be adapting to hip-hop? It only makes sense for the Bay Area’s most famous jazz club to embrace the next great American artform, and the venue works well for it. Yes, the sound system was designed for Steinways and not Serato (Bass: How low can you go? Not very low), but the small stage, standing room and temporary bars on either side of the crowd fit the scene perfectly.

To a totally sold-out, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, Public Enemy played a 90-minute set of every hit one could want to hear. “911 Is a Joke,” “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “Bring the Noise,” “Don’t Believe the Hype,” “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic,” “Burn Hollywood Burn”—and yes, most of the songs were over 20 years old. Age coupled with the red-velvet environs gave the night a nostalgic vibe, and on top of two decades already taking the incendiary edge off these songs, they were mitigated further by a general onstage playfulness.

The set featured Kool & the Gang and White Stripes riffs; an ongoing game of “toss the mic”; a James Brownian rule that anyone who messes up has to do 10 pushups; an “invisible studio fader” routine and of course, the ongoing antics of Flavor Flav. “I wanna thank y’all for makin’ Flavor Flav the number-one reality TV star of the decade!” he shouted at one point, during a long monologue about his “second job” on a television show (involving girls defecating on the floor, among other things). And yet it wouldn’t be Public Enemy without him—Chuck D even gave a little “every family has one” defense of Flav, if anyone doubted their closeness.

As for the music? The night was billed as Public Enemy “with a live band,” but as Chuck D pointed out, they’ve been playing with a live band since 1999, inspired by a tour of Japan with the Roots. Chuck D has said in interviews that he wasn’t ever really into jazz, that it was more his dad’s thing, but there was plenty of flash to go around last night. New bassist Davy D at one point let Flav take over for “Welcome to the Terrordome” while the guitarist played solos behind his back; Flav even hopped on the drum set at the end.

And though Chuck D didn’t break out any freestyles (“I’m the least talented member of the group,” he quipped), his between-song improv touched on the importance of the Bay Area, referencing Sly and the Family Stone, Tower of Power, Etta James and Johnny Otis right on up to Too Short, DJ Q-Bert and JT the Bigga Figga. “Bay Area independent hip-hop always did the thing,” Chuck D said in homage, “and they just never got support of local radio.”

It’s knowledge like that which separates Public Enemy from the rest. By the end of the set, Chuck D was wearing a “Justice for Oscar Grant” shirt and Flavor Flav was railing against racism and separatism. In the shadow of a chilling live version of “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” and the shooting there last week, it was clear that the progress Public Enemy fought for twenty years ago is still elusive. While everyone in the place threw hopeful peace signs in the air, set closer “Fight the Power” felt more like a party than a war, but there’s still a lot of bite in Public Enemy. Relevant bite, at that. Even in a jazz club. Thank goodness.

EXTRA POINTS: I dunno if it was P.E.’s doing or what, but playing the great Funky Riddims compilation Bay Area Funk before the show was a nice touch. (“Foxy Girls in Oakland.” Listen to it!)

CELEBRITY SIGHTING: Those eyes didn’t deceive you—Aesop Rock was in the crowd.

Photos by Liz Seward.

More Photos Below.

John Zorn Returns to Yoshi's in August

Posted by: on Jul 20, 2010 | Comments (1)

As prolific as alto saxophonist / composer / all-around madman John Zorn is in the studio—he’s played on over 400 recordings—he really doesn’t play live on the West Coast that much. In 1999, his Masada Quartet played Yoshi’s in Oakland, and it was another ten long years before he returned for a week-long residency last year in San Francisco. Like Ron Burgundy might say, it was kind of a big deal. The first show I saw was unbelievable; the second one was like something from outer space. He returns next month to Yoshi’s for another run, and like last year, it’s a different band for each show. Unlike last year, tickets are not $50 but a little cheaper at $25-$35, owing to Zorn’s use this time of West Coast musicians instead of flying all his NYC bros to California with him.

Here’s the dates and the individual lineups:

Thursday, Aug. 26
8pm: Terry Riley and John Zorn duo
10pm: Fred Frith, Mike Patton, John Zorn trio

Friday, Aug. 27
8pm: John Zorn’s ‘Alhambra Love Songs’ with Rob Burger, Trevor Dunn and Kenny Wollesen
10pm: Aleph Trio with John Zorn, Trevor Dunn, Kenny Wollesen and films by Wallace Berman

Saturday, Aug. 28
8pm: John Zorn with the Rova Sax Quartet
10pm: John Zorn’s Cobra

I can’t stress how much you should try to see at least one of these shows—especially Saturday’s Cobra performance, which features 15 guys including Mike Patton, Fred Frith, Trey Spruance, Trevor Dunn and lots more, all conducted by the esoteric hand gestures of Zorn at the podium. It’s truly a sight to behold. All show info. and ticket sales over at Yoshi’s site.

Live Review: Gil Scott-Heron at Yoshi's

Posted by: on Mar 18, 2010 | Comments (2)

It had to happen. Not five seconds after a smiling, lanky Gil Scott-Heron ambled onto the stage at Yoshi’s last night, someone shouted for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

Scott-Heron, rail-thin and in a too-big jacket and flat cap, ignored the request. But he also completely ignored his acclaimed comeback album, I’m New Here—indeed, he played nothing from it. Instead, the singer, poet and musician delivered a joyous set of classic older material, providing a treat for longtime fans and a nearly two-hour introduction for newcomers who just heard about him last month on NPR.

“This has been a very eventful week,” Scott-Heron said, opening the show. “We been reading stuff about us we never knew. You get to have another life when you’re an artist like me—the one you live and the one they write about. I read, for example, that I had disappeared. I thought about adding that to my live act. You come to see me, and poof! I’m gone.”

To understate, Scott-Heron possesses a gift of gab. After 15 minutes of patter about dwarfs, encyclopedias, Winston Churchill, Black History Month, the radio, the news and his home state of Tennessee—all of which might seem self-obliging if not for his sharp, acerbic wit—Scott-Heron finally sat down at his Fender Rhodes and nestled his well-worn throat into “Blue Collar,” as autobiographical a song as any for the legend who’s recently spent time in prison for cocaine charges:

I been down in New York City, that ain’t no place to be down
I been been lookin’ at the faces of children, you see we’re lookin’ for higher ground

You can’t name where I ain’t been down
‘Cause there ain’t no place I ain’t been down

There is gravity in Scott-Heron’s voice—the kind of voice they don’t make anymore. It’s in shockingly fine form, a low bass, rich and full of purpose, flowering at the end of lines into breathy vowels. Take “Pieces of a Man,” for example: a song Scott-Heron’s sung countless times, and still a searing pain overtook it last night, as if he were experiencing the subject for the first time.

This is the most valuable aspect of Scott-Heron’s newfound rebirth. Unlike others who’ve fallen from grace and bestow the world with rote, financially-rewarding tours, Scott-Heron is a true original who appears incapable of going through the motions. Seated at his keyboard, head thrown back to the ceiling, he spent the set running through a catalog full of emotional intensity to a sold-out crowd.

Yes, it would have been better with a fuller band. And yes, some long vamps went on past their bedtime. But an energized Scott-Heron also fought the house lights and came back for an encore while even more patrons waited, lined up out the doors for the late show, clutching LP copies of Midnight Band. Waiting to be close to a legend. Wondering how the show would be. Wondering if Scott-Heron truly had come back.

The answer is yes. May his reemergence last.

Turntablists Invade the Jazz Club

Posted by: on Feb 23, 2010 | Comments (0)

From the garages and bedrooms of the Bay Area to the swank jazz lounge! Saturday kicks off the Dan-the-Automator-curated Audio Alchemy series at Yoshi’s, giving you a chance to strap on your rumpled suit you haven’t worn since high school prom and check out all the dudes you loved in Scratch. This weekend brings jaw-dropping innovator DJ Q-Bert performing with fellow Invisibl Skratch Pikl DJ Shortkut, collaborating with Adam Theis and the Jazz Mafia All-Stars with MARS-1. (Feb 27; Starts at 10:30; $20.) And get this—it’s not in the concert venue. It’s in the restaurant and cocktail bar!

Ten years ago and half a mile mile away, most of these DJs made a name for themselves at the Justice League on Divisadero, a no-frills smelly hard-drinking and smoking place that’s now the Independent. So it might feel a little weird to be witnessing the don’t-give-a-fuck style on the faders in the snazzy environs of Yoshi’s, sure. But several years ago, Kid Koala somehow convinced the hip-hop heads to sit down and be polite for his dinner theater performances, so maybe it’s not that strange after all.

Even more to the point: Hip-hop is basically the new jazz, and it’s awesome that Yoshi’s has been hosting a ton of hip-hop shows lately. De La Soul, Talib Kweli, Foreign Exchange, the Pharcyde, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Mos Def. Some early birders have complained that the shows start too late—midnight, in some cases—but in my experience, that’s when most hip-hop headliners go on anyway. Cut out the local DJ amateurishly blending “Peter Piper” breaks into “Ballroom Blitz” for way too long and get to the meat, I say.

Oh! Right, the series. Audio Alchemy sees the likes of DJ Q-Bert (Feb. 27), Dan the Automator (Mar. 13), Kid Koala (Mar. 27), Mixmaster Mike (Apr. 10) and Chief Xcel (Apr. 24). More info here. In related news, Wave Twisters is still the greatest scratch album of all time.

Live Review: Kenny Garrett at Yoshi's

Posted by: on Jan 25, 2010 | Comments (0)

Even though it was over 25 years ago, Kenny Garrett will forever be associated with Miles Davis, in whose band he spent several years in the 1980s. Perhaps to spite the collective public mind beneath Miles’ shadow, Garrett has since made a career out of versatility. His latest studio album, the incredible Beyond the Wall, was an Eastern-tinged outing of dense, rich composition; Garrett dedicated it to McCoy Tyner. Last year, the celebrated alto saxophonist released Sketches of MD: Live at the Iridium, a scorching concert set with guest Pharaoh Sanders.

Tonight at Yoshi’s, Garrett, now 49, displayed that trademark versatility with his quartet, playing short melodic duets alongside long, rhythmic barn-burners in a powerhouse set that had the audience on their feet and begging for more even after the house lights came up.

The set began by the thump of the bass drum and a full sixteen bars of funk-break drumming, and it would be easy to say that this set the tone for the night. Yet each player injected a stylistic flourish into the steady gait. Garrett, for example, began by adhering to the bluesy growl that is the trademark of one-chord funk jazz, only to slowly stretch to an aggressive dance around the perimeter of the music, splaying a feisty thread around his band’s patterns like a spider on methamphetamine.

Bassist Kona Khasu plucked out chromatic chord ascensions, warbling slides on the neck and pizzicato grace notes well above the twelfth fret. Johnny Mercier lathered organ and phase-shifted synthesizer together in a wall of texture. Throughout the set, usually climaxing a long, eventual crescendo, all these elements fell into place. Each time it happened, Garrett rocked back and forth playing alternately to the floor and ceiling in a physical manifestation of his personal nirvana, and the effect transcended any dismissive categorization as “funk jazz.”

When Garrett finds available real estate in a song, he drops everything and fills it. Tonight, he halted the proceedings in order to meditate on a feeling several times. The first excursion lasted roughly ten minutes with billowing, sad, evocative saxophone lines unraveling over Mercier’s sci-fi synthesizer oscillations.

The second came at the end of a piano/soprano sax duet—a light, major-key melody reminiscent of an AM soft-rock hit—when Garrett fell away and experimented with acoustics by bleating quick, sharp Eastern-tinged lines which resonated inside the grand piano and echoed in the back of the club. The William Tell Overture was quoted, some prominent overtones overtook the dominant tones and Garrett drained out his horn, like a bike tire deflating.

The night ended with a full-on funk scorcher, complete with teaser endings and solicitations from Garrett himself for more noise from the crowd. Not that solicitations were needed—the crowd was on their feet and cheering for more even after the band had blown their final note, fist-bumped each other and left the stage. Cheering for more, in fact, even after the house lights came up.

Chances are that when Kenny Garrett comes back next year, he’ll be on some different tip entirely, with different sidemen. This band, transcending prescribed pockets, is worth catching while it lasts.

Sunny Murray Still Misses That Girl

Posted by: on Jul 1, 2009 | Comments (0)

Early last week at Yoshi’s Go Left Fest, drummer Sunny Murray—easily one of the most important stickmen in 1960s avant-garde jazz—came out on stage, sat down at his kit, and started calling out for a woman he once dated in San Francisco 40 years ago. No one answered.

“You’re just hiding because you got remarried,” he proposed, directing his next comments to the imaginary husband of the absent woman. “I was going to kill her first husband, you know. Sun Ra gave me a .38. I love guns, I’ll shoot your ass, boy.”

With this, he laughed. “I’m not gonna kill you,” Murray added. “I’ll just shoot your kneecaps off.”

Murray, who established his career by drumming on famous sessions alongside Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Alan Silva, Archie Shepp and a host of other breakneck pioneers, then picked up his sticks. He is 73, and his drumming has slowed but not entirely abandoned propulsion. His trio, Positive Knowledge, played one steady stream of music for over a half hour, combining reeds, gongs, poetry and noise. For an avant-garde festival, it felt strangely behaved.

At the end, Murray was still thinking about that beautiful woman from 40 years ago who got away. He approached the microphone. “She was half Filipino, from San Francisco,” he told the crowd. “My wife took one look at her and said ‘Why’d you leave her for me?!’”

“I told her, ‘Because I love you, motherfucker!’”

Then he walked off the stage.

Live Review: Abdullah Ibrahim at Yoshi's

Posted by: on Jun 8, 2009 | Comments (0)

Despite that fact that most of Abdullah Ibrahim’s performance last night was a 50-minute, uninterrupted medley of themes largely in the same key and slow tempo, admiration was the prevailing response over boredom. To the uninitiated, the incessant piece seemed like the piano equivalent of stumbling into Guitar Center and hearing the omnipresent Dude Who Plays Unending Blues Riffs; Ibrahim would play a melody for a minute or two, change gears, play a different one in the same key for four minutes, change gears again and so on. Sound dull? To Ibrahim’s many fans who filled Yoshi’s in San Francisco, it was a celebration of a rich life and an underdog career.

Born in South Africa, Ibrahim’s music is inextricably linked with the political struggles of his homeland (Ibrahim’s composition “Mannenberg” was the first music Nelson Mandela heard in decades). He grew up amidst upheaval, was discovered by Duke Ellington, moved to Europe and lived in exile until returning to his home country after the fall of Apartheid. His latest album, Senzo, is a solo recording almost identical to last night’s concert: a pensive outing and essentially a 1,224-bar blues with so many chord changes that each resolution to the root seemed like a triumph.

Ibrahim said no words to the crowd, only bowing with palms together before sitting down and showing that he has aged in the best possible way. His playing could never go completely New Age or into the realm of post-Bill Evans fluidity. Ocassional four-fingered, octaved arpeggios recalled Jaki Byard, and at times his use of discord rivaled Paul Bley’s Closer. Snippets of “Memories of You” or “Round Midnight” crept into his playing, but for the most part it was all Ibrahim: a man no longer nimble, full-bodied or particularly fast at the keys, but a man playing as breathing proof that emotion and experience trumps technique.

Go Left Fest: Sunny Murray, Marshall Allen, Roswell Rudd and More Coming to Yoshi's

Posted by: on May 9, 2009 | Comments (0)

I was plenty thrilled that Abdullah Ibrahim is coming to Yoshi’s in San Francisco (June 5-7), but today’s announcement from hit-the-ground-running Artistic Director Jason Olaine officially blows away worrisome reports of booking more mainstream fare like Joan Osborne and Bruce Hornsby.

Attention, free jazz fans: The inaugural Go Left Fest, two days of avant-garde legends at Yoshi’s in San Francisco, is coming on June 22 and 23.

It’s crazy enough that Marshall Allen, the 85-year old Sun Ra cohort and torchbearer, is part of the festival. It’s insane enough that Roswell Rudd, whose New York Art Quartet and New York Eye and Ear Control are essentials, is appearing too. Throw into the mix author Ishmael Reed, pianist Matthew Shipp, pianists Myra Melford and Mark Dresser, bassist Joe Morris, clarinetist Beth Custer and saxophonist Oluyemi Thomas, and a joyful noise unto the rock of our outer planes is guaranteed.

The cause of my personal hysteria? The drummer on the dates, Sunny Murray. I picked up Eremite’s deluxe reissue of Murray’s hailed-but-impossible-to-find 1969 album Big Chief recently, and it’s as blistering and intense as a hailstorm of roofing nails. (Limited to 600 copies—laminated cover, pressed at RTI, 180 gram, the whole bit. Dusty Groove seems to still have some in stock.)

I assumed Murray, pictured above, was living as a hermit these days in some out-of-the-way neighborhood in Paris, stockpiling newspaper clippings and watching static on TV sets and baking bread or something. I’m glad to know he’s still playing—after an incredible career backing up key Cecil Talyor and Albert Ayler dates, along with leading his own groups.

Murray’s classic album An Even Break (Never Give a Sucker), on BYG Actuel, is a must-have, but Murray is unlikely to see any royalties from it, according to this stellar interview by Clifford Allen. Most record companies are shady, but BYG Actuel made it an art—it turns out that BYG Actuel’s contracts were presented to American musicians drafted in French:

I made three albums, Archie made four; we were like children in a candy field. And we signed contracts, but Archie was the only one who understood a little French. And like you said, the contracts are so artificial. Like one of the lines, they said they owned the music for infinity. [laughs] It’s impossible! I showed my lawyer and he laughed, and we didn’t know what to say.

The Go Left Fest at Yoshi’s in San Francisco, which should hopefully toss some money in Murray’s bank account, is on June 22 and 23. There’s one long show each night, at 8pm; tickets are $40 each or $65 for both days. You can buy tickets here.

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

Posted by: on Mar 16, 2009 | Comments (1)

Behold the great and glorious wonder of music and its neverending mindbend. Behold works of greatness trailblazing and incomprehensible. Behold Electric Masada last night at Yoshi’s.

Last night, Zorn ended his five-day residency at Yoshi’s with an explosive band that made everyone in the San Francisco audience feel giddy and made his famous hardcore-jazz albums Naked City and Torture Garden seem like mere novelties in comparison. Electric Masada, an 8-piece grouping of John Zorn, Jamie Saft, Trevor Dunn, Kenny Wollensen, Joey Baron, Cyro Baptista, Ikue Mori and Marc Ribot is not something that can be easily described in words.

Here’s some: Celestial roadkill. Controlled chaos. Blatant intensity. Eruptive slaughter. Unbridled jubilation.

The hyper-prolific Zorn, aged 55 with no trace of mellowing out, spent the evening with his back to the crowd, “playing” the seven other musicians like instruments with a series of complex hand signals. He’d point to Saft to play a solo, then wiggle his outstretched fingers to Baron, who’d rattle on the cymbals; he’d pull his hands apart and chop the air, whereupon the band would fall on a series of whole notes; he’d shake his finger up and down for Ribot to trill two notes, swing his arms up to increase Wollensen’s volume or point rapidly to individual members in succession to create a stereo ping-pong effect before pointing at his head to take everyone back to the top.

It was an full-body galvanizing experience, somewhere between Alan Silva’s Seasons, Black Sabbath’s Masters of Reality and Andy Statman’s Jewish Klezmer Music. On Thursday, while watching the Masada Quartet, the crowd was enveloped inside Zorn’s music, trying to place its brain inside of his and meditating on how it might be mentally constructed. Last night there was no choice but to sit in the chair and let the waves of sound rush by.

Electric Masada is the great and ferocious culmination of jazz’s goal toward spontaneous composition in action. During the third song, Ribot took a solo, in fits and starts. After nothing really gelled he gazed up at Zorn with a look that said, “Well, I’m done.” Zorn ignored him, and kept working the rest of the band, pulling his hand at Ribot for him to keep going.

There’s a certain frustrated freedom that comes with doing something you’ve indicated that you don’t want to do, and it was with such freedom that Ribot’s solo immediately transformed from a standard-issue blues-rock housing to the totally unique Marc Ribot that Zorn well knows looms right under the surface.

Suddenly wailing, Ribot held it down while Zorn motioned around the room for certain sections to fall apart, to go half-time, to stop entirely for a few seconds. Each twist brought out even more invention and snake-like tenacity in Ribot, and soon he didn’t want to stop. Zorn bit his reed, leaned into the mic and growled his approval.

Baptista swung a plastic tube over his head. Zorn and Mori traded high-pitched saxophone and laptop tweets. Wollensen and Baron thundered in and out of time on two drum kits. Saft and Dunn held down what shards of groove were left on a vintage keyboard and bass. And then, Zorn banging his hand against Ribot’s shoulder, he swirled his palm around and brought the whole thing to a forceful, sudden, distorted end.

No one in the standing ovation that followed is likely to ever forget it.