For years San Francisco has been the West Coast playground and refuge of jazz musicians. Since 2013, those artists have had a permanent home at the SFJAZZ Center, the first-ever standalone structure in the country dedicated to jazz. Think of it as a cool opera house, where the beats get funky, the music is often improvised and the roof frequently gets torn off.
The 34th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival (June 7-19) marked the fourth year that the fest had been held primarily in the center. Its prodigal sons and daughters have come ‘round again and the results were an event that was as fun, warm, inviting and sophisticated as the city.
The festival this year kicked off with a free block party. The roster of artists was local and international, young and seasoned. Compared to other festivals around the country, this one is more jazz orientated. You won’t find Justin Bieber on center stage. Not unless he gets into Bebop and hones it. This is a festival for connoisseurs: artists and jazz fans with mutual respect and admiration.
The lineup this year featured legends like McCoy Tyner and sons of legends like Ravi Coltrane. Tributes to Allen Toussaint and Miles Davis. Innovators like the one-woman orchestra Zoë Keating with her cello and computer, and New Orleans trumpeter/vocalist Bria Skonberg.
Los Van Van
Most artists end their show inviting people to get on their feet, dance in the aisles and come on stage to shake their booty. That’s how the popular Cuban group Los Van Van started their gig. The band includes four lead singers who harmonized and soloed, a flute, rhythm section, horn section and synthesizers. Their sound, “timba,” is a pleasing amalgamation of rumba, hip hop, and funk with a pinch of disco and rock. As each soloist took their turn, they encouraged the audience to shake their groove thing.
They weren’t fluent in English so they spoke largely in Spanish, gestured and let their music do the talking. When they raised their hands, it was time to get up. There hasn’t been that much crazed dancing since the Saturday Night Fever days. The placed rocked! Los Van Van didn’t open this year’s festival, but they started the party.
Miles Electric featuring Sean Jones
In direct contrast, Miles Electric displayed two generations of Miles Davis players, his contemporaries and the next generation. The set started with a collage of Davis’ photos and quotes on a screen projected overhead. DJ Jeremy Ellis cued up Miles’ voice. It was a very avant-garde and haunting intro. Then the musicians arranged themselves on stage and dug into music that was experimental, funky, melodic, and soulful—separately and sometimes all at once.
Sean Jones on trumpet sounded a bit like Miles. Once he put a mute on the bell of his horn, the ghost of Miles Davis entered the room. It’s as if the remnants of Bitches Brew and Birth of Cool seeped in. Antoine Roney, on clarinet and saxophones, accented Jones’ playing. Blackbyrd McKnight exhibited a dexterity on electric guitar that made Eric Clapton look like he has slow hands. Hard to fathom a more professional, traditional and progressive set of jazz musicians all in one band.
Bassist Nathan East coyly asked the audience if they were ready for “foreplay.” When they said yes, he said, “OK. We will hurry and get this over so you can get home.” The audience erupted with laughter. And so it began. A night of ultra smooth, contemporary jazz headed by keyboardist Bob James, guitarist Chuck Loeb and drummer Harvey Mason. The group’s sound sets them apart from other acts. It’s warm and cozy. That kind of sound resonates in every corner of a room. Smooth, sensual, silky. Yet lively.
Loeb’s guitar is so expressive it’s like he commands it to sing. Mason caresses the drums with percussive sounds and brushes over his cymbals with a sultry feel. Often bass players are passive, providing just an anchored back beat, but East makes his instrument very animated and communicative. And he sang, never words, just coos and ahs in dulcet jazz tones. Meantime, Bob James’ played piano spreading a noble sound over all the instruments. The group celebrated its 25th year 2015-2016. Aptly calling their current album Silver, as in silver anniversary. They played tunes from that album that will be classic 25 years from now.
Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band
Drummer and composer Brian Blade is truly the festival’s fortunate son. When artistic director Randall Kline introduced Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band, he mentioned that Blade was a founding member of the SFJAZZ Center’s SFJAZZ Collective. He’s the band’s leader. He started songs, directed the musicians and drummed alongside most of their solos with a supportive yet demonstrative performance that made you think he was hearing notes and beats no one else could. Melvin Butler on soprano and tenor saxophones alongside Myron Walden on alto saxophone and bass clarinet stood stage front like a singing duo. Their horns sounded like jazz vocalists, with deep tones and high squeaks. Jon Cowherd on piano added color. Chris Thomas on bass gave the group a ground floor.
So much of their sound was atmospheric that you could easily imagine their music on the soundtrack of an Oscar-caliber art film. Some of their songs were from the 2014 Blue Note album, Landmarks. Perhaps their most beautiful rendition was the sea shanty Shenandoah, a song that originated in the 19th century and is about a fur trader floating down the Missouri River and longing to marry the daughter of the Native American chief “Shenandoah.” Their playing evoked the scene, the feeling, the yearning. It was like you were watching a movie.
Seventy-six year old Roy Ayers, a legendary funk, soul and jazz composer, is also one of the world’s top vibraphone players. These days, he has taken that instrument to a new level. His vibraphone is electrified, allowing him to make the usual sweet percussive sounds, and sounds you’d expect to hear from a synthesizer. He is known for dabbling in acid jazz and has been dubbed “The Godfather of Neo Soul.” This is the man who wrote the soundtrack to Pam Grier’s 1973 movie Coffy. He knows his way around a funky beat and that’s probably why so many butts were shimmying in their seats the night he brought cool to the SFJAZZ Center’s main stage at the Miner Auditorium.
With Ayers on vibraphone, and vocals, John Pressley singing and rapping, Everette Freeman roughing up the keyboards, Donald Nicks beating down the bass, Bernard Davis on drums and a funkadelic guitarist, it was party time. Political/social songs like Red Black and Green, classic numbers like Searching and hometown chants like We Live In Brooklyn Baby made the audience rave. The music was timeless.
The 2016 San Francisco Jazz Festival came to a close June 19th with an all-star tribute to McCoy Tyner at the Davies Symphony Hall. With Chick Corea on piano, alongside other stellar musicians and a special appearance by McCoy Tyner himself, it was a grand way to end a 34th Anniversary celebration.
For jazz fans the party continues at the SFJAZZ Center 52 weeks a year. There are concerts, classes, programs and even a touring SFJAZZ Collective. You don’t have to wait until next year for the San Francisco Jazz Festival to hear jazz in SF. Not when there is a community-gathering place like the SFJAZZ Center that welcomes fans and musicians all year long.
Visit entertainment and travel writer Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com