2003 SFJAZZ Fest' Fantastic!

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Two professionals, when they meet onstage or in a studio, they're going to make it work anyway. But when you're professionals and also very good friends, it's just so easy.
—Ramsey Lewis about Nancy Wilson
October 23-November 9, 2003

The 21st Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival presented by TARGET offered a dazzling array of entertainment, showcasing the Bay City's beautiful sites. What a great city. Combine that with jazz talent from McCoy Tyner to Nancy Wilson and Ramsey Lewis, and you've got another successful season.

The San Francisco Bay Area-based non-profit organization, SFJAZZ, rocked the town thanks to the backing of TARGET, the 3,000 SFJAZZ members, the more than 100,000 annual concert patrons and the contributing Bay-area businesses. As USA Today put it, "...for three full weeks in the fall, the City by the Bay is the jazz capital of the world."

Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Mavis Staples, Dave Holland, Etta James, Ruth Brown, Cecil Taylor, Enrico Rava, Maria Muldaur...even the SFJAZZ All-Star High School Ensemble opened things wide-up this time around. And that's only a partial list. I flew in for the final amazing week.

Checking in to the Hotel Cosmo, it was a quick cab ride over to the "B-3 Summit: The Rematch" at Bimbo's 365 Club. That's right, the Joey DeFrancesco Trio and the Jimmy Smith Group were goin' at it. Joey has monster chops, but Jimmy Smith is still the godfather of the Hammond B-3. (The first album I ever bought, as a 12-yr. old growing up in Kansas City around 1967, was The Further Adventures of Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery. Weird.)

Born in 1928 outside Philadelphia, Jimmy Smith is still hammering away at the Hammond B-3 with style and grace. Coming out of a nice drum solo, Jimmy slides into a funky version of "Salt Peanuts". Other tunes included "Bring Out My Baby Now" and a crowd-pleaser "Got My Mojo Working".

After being discovered by Miles Davis, young Joey DeFrancesco helped re-popularize the B-3 in the late-80's. This night, the master Jimmy Smith and heir apparent Joey DeFrancesco jammed together to a standing ovation.

I enjoyed the streets of San Francisco the next day. There are tons of espresso shops and great sushi restaurants. The fragrances of San Francisco excite you with the fresh smell of coffee to the sweet, colorful flower stands at the streetcorners. I sat down at Union Square to sip on a double espresso and enjoy the sights.

That evening it was off to Oakland on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), which is like the NY subways only much cleaner, more comfortable and no grafitti. The festival's first-ever concert at Calvin Simmons Theatre presented guitarists Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell.

The show was billed as "Intercontinental Guitar" and was truly a treat of eclectic string things. It was my first time seeing both these great guitarists. New York-based Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos had a Santana sound, with its organ, percussion, drums, bass and lyrical guitar. Latin rap and 12-string fullness finished off the refreshing 45-minute set. Ribot has backed diverse musicians including Tom Waits, Marianne Faithful and Elvis Costello.

With great acoustics surrounded by elegant crystal chandeliers, the theatre was the perfect setting for Bill Frisell & the Intercontinentals. A Fender Telecaster strapped on, (at least it looked like a Tele), wearing black and white sneakers, Frisell led his band through a wonderful sound journey. It was like a mystical dream sequence, like a movie soundtrack...almost Asian sounding.

Smiling away, Frisell moves from one special effects device to another, conjuring up a nice duet with his fiddlin' female, then off into deliberate dissonance; sounding like a machine falling apart.

The sextet included: Malian percussionist/vocalist Sidiki Camara, Brazilian guitarist/vocalist Vinicius Cantuaria, Greek-Macedonian oud (lute) player and vocalist Christos Govetas, Southern California slide and pedal steel guitarist and longtime Frisell collaborator Greg Leisz; and New York-based violinist Jenny Scheinman.

The next day I enjoyed more of this great city, including the world-famous San Francisco Museum of Modern Art , perhaps the best modern art museum in the world today. Also, I took a nice walk over to Disher Music & Sound , an awesome recording studio that exemplifies the great music and art that this city is all about.

It was Saturday night and Nancy Wilson with Ramsey Lewis were on tap. This turned out to be the best show of my brief tour. Nancy Wilson is truly a class-act, as is her tuxedo-clad friend Ramsey Lewis. It was a mere 4-blocks to Masonic Auditorium at California & Taylor. I had a quick sushi dinner at Sakana on Post and began my short walk. Or so I thought.

Looking up Taylor Street, I could see my 4-blocks were straight up! Now I know why they have cable cars. The automobiles were parked side-by-side up the street at such an angle that I have no clue how they didn't just start tumbling over and over down the steep hill.

But it was worth the work to get to the "Simple Pleasures" show with Wilson and Lewis. Clad in a sheer black dress, Nancy Wilson strolled out looking good. She won me over with the first song, "Moon Dance" then "Lost In Love With You".

The Ramsey Lewis Trio included: Ramsey (piano), Larry Gray (bass) and Leon Joyce (drums), as well as pianist/conductor Llew Matthews. The incredible rhythm section was perfect for these two great professionals.

"It's very comfortable," Lewis said upon release of Virgin/Narada Jazz Records' Simple Pleasures. "Two professionals, when they meet onstage or in a studio, they're going to make it work anyway. But when you're professionals and also very good friends, it's just so easy."

The friendship showed onstage. After her first two songs, Nancy handed the microphone to Ramsey and strutted offstage, allowing the boys to play together. The drummer had the most incredible soft sound, yet so powerful and in control. I was truly amazed.

Nancy reappears wearing a stunning red dress and sings "My Foolish Heart". Then the gang goes into an old-school gospel tune that gets the crowd clapping.

Nancy has an unbelievably strong, sweet voice. She can really work the crowd too. A consummate professional. "Ooh Child" gives me goosebumps. It's all about the fun. Then into the Beatles' "In My Life", very thoughtful and moving. Lennon and Harrison were smiling from on high. Percussionist Leon lightly taps the cymbals like playing chimes. Just beautiful.

"I miss Cannonball," Nancy remembers her old friend Mr. Adderly. And she goes right into "I Will Never Marry", followed by the Jimmy Scott song "I'm So In Love" and "My Funny Valentine".

As she finished "My Funny Valentine", some woman in the audience audibly expressed, "Now that's art!" Leaning on Ramsey's piano, Nancy does a beautiful version of "God Bless The Child". Forty years of combined personal and professional togetherness really shows.

This show stopped me dead in my tracks. I was totally caught off-guard. I did not expect to be so moved. It was really a gem.

It was up early the next day, a sunny Sunday, for a jazz cruise around San Francisco Bay. Quick, more coffee and I'm off...strolling down Market to Embarcadero and Pier 9. There's a three-story yacht there waiting for me.

Standing in line, waiting for boarding, I meet Jan, Sylvia and Chuck. The friendly folk inform me that - outside of Louisiana - perhaps the biggest hotbed for Cajun music is good ol' San Francisco. Who knew? They also told me they took the jazz cruise a couple of years earlier and had a great time. Now I see why.

With champagne flowing freely and an incredible food spread, we set out to sea... or is that: we set out to bay. The sexy songstress Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers are providing the great swing music. What a horn section!

I've been following the success of this San Francisco-based swing band from my vantage point on the East Coast, and was delighted to get a chance to meet her and the guys in the band. What a fun sound! As Lavay told Blues Revue, "We started to get some press and build a following and eventually got enough work so I could quit my waitressing gig." Pick up their CD, Everybody's Talkin' 'Bout Miss Thing, which got a 4-1/2 star rating from Down Beat. They rocked through Basie, Duke and Bessie Smith.

Also performing, on the upper deck, was Swing Fever featuring Denise Perrier. It was under the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz with great food, great friends and great music. What a way to close out the San Francisco Jazz Festival! I'll definitely be back next year! And you should too.

Visit SFJazz on the web at sfjazz.org .

Photo Credit
Scott Chernis

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