27th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival


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27th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival
San Francisco, California
October 10-November 21, 2009

There is much to enjoy at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. In addition to bringing together high-caliber jazz talent to showcase a wonderful cross-section of diverse sounds, the Festival provides the visitor with one of the world's great cities as its panoramic backdrop. Few places are as unique and charming as the City on the Bay, and the performances are presented in various venues around the city, allowing jazz fans to explore the treasures of this romantic city, from the elegant architecture to the profound flavors of its ethnic neighborhoods. If you want to combine history, art, and steep hills with your jazz, the S. F. Festival is a top choice. It is held every October/November—the largest non-profit jazz and educational event on the West Coast.

The music choices are so widespread, complete coverage is impractical. In chronological order, the following are five diverse, representative performances:

Improvisational wailing blues greeted an enthusiastic audience at The Swedish American Club. Trio 3, consisting of three masters of the avant-garde genre: founder of the World Saxophone Quartet, altoist Oliver Lake; ex-Coltrane bassist, Reggie Workman; and Cecil Taylor's pioneering drummer, Andrew Cyrille. Their compositions took off like a runaway cable car, meandered in free-form directions, only to snap back to cohesive conclusions. Oliver Lake's saxophone has lost none of its edge, channeling both the cries of Albert Ayler and the speed of John Coltrane. In "The Navigator" his fierce playing was full of time changes, shifts, and whirls, feeling like a ride down Lombard Street. Workman achieved mythic status when he joined Coltrane in 1961—48 years later, his bass playing still rides the line of power and grace. He strummed sinewy and tasteful notes throughout the original Lake composition, " 5,4,3,2." Cyrille anchored the band with thunderous drumming throughout the 80-minute set. It was an explosive evening of challenging jazz, to the great delight of an enthused audience.

Whether playing cool modal jazz in the style of the late organist Larry Young, or motoring through contemporary jazz fusion, Larry Goldings feels right at home. This performance put the accent on the organ trio, with Bill Stewart (introduced as "God") on the skins, and Peter Bernstein on guitar. The opening number, "Whatever It Takes," found a groove which never let up, highlighted by Bernstein's hornlike lines on guitar and Stewart's polyrhythmic drumming. Stevie Wonder's "Big Brother" was treated with soul and sass, followed by a haunting version of Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye." Goldings' organ intro was profound, and Bernstein's guitar solo had a sublime style reminiscent of Grant Green. Goldings' mentor, Jim Hall, inspired a hard-bop version of "Jim-Jam," which led to the beautiful number, "The Acrobat," which lived up to its title in the band's mellifluous interaction.

The Pat Martino Quartet followed Goldings at the historic Palace of Fine Arts. Loud Cheers greeted Martino, who has overcome adversity in a career chockfull of great guitar accomplishments. He proved to be deserving of the accolades, playing blistering guitar throughout the show. His terrific band consisted of Tony Monaco on organ, Eric Alexander on tenor, and the youthful Jason Brown on drums. The hard-bop classic "Full House" showed Wes's influence on Martino's style. Another highlight was a solemn tribute to organist Jack McDuff, which spread over the audience like an early morning fog rolls over the Golden Gate Bridge.

One of today's pre-eminent guitarists, John Abercrombie, performed at the Florence Gould Pavilion, which is a museum filled with classic works of art by Rodin, Picasso, and Van Gogh. Abercrombie's quartet blended perfectly with the impressionistic art as he played a program including a heavy concentration on the guitarist's latest album Wait Till You See Her. The interplay of the quartet was inspired and seasoned, proving the advantage of playing together as a unit for years. Sarcastically comparing his songwriting skills with Barry Manilow, Abercrombie imparted a pastoral quality to "The Anniversary Song." "Line Up" and "Class Trip" were replete with rapid time changes, showcasing Mark Feldman, his violin echoing sounds of nature such as birds chirping and water flowing in a brook. "Out of Towner," a tribute to Ralph Towner, Abercrombie's old "ECM" collaborator, proved that soft and slow can be as mighty as loud and fast. The latter part of the performance featured older tunes (a straight-ahead "Trio" to the rousing "Stop and Go," which showcased the polished professionalism of Drew Gress on bass and Anthony Pinciotti on drums.

Justifiably, Ornette Coleman has garnered numerous awards for his powerful and unique contributions to jazz. His performance at the elegant Davies Symphony Hall was remarkable, cementing his reputation as an innovator whose stature is towering in the jazz world. He launched into an opening original tune, playing equal parts on saxophone, trumpet, and violin, hitting rollercoaster scales with the power of a musician forty years younger than his actual age. Coleman and his fine quartet (Anthony Falanga and Al MacDowell bookending the master on acoustic and electric bass, respectively, and his son Denardo Coleman on drums) played many of his classic harmolodic originals and free bluesy compositions ("Tone Dialing," "Sex Mob," "Human Being," etc.). The venerable giant and his musicians hit all the marks, submitting a performance of the highest order. In particular, Denardo silenced the critics from his early days (when he played and recorded in his teens as a member of Prime Time), playing with fire and passion in a steady and confident manner. One of the highlights of the set was "When Will the Blues Leave," which left the crowd visibly moved. Coleman's spiritual persona shone through on this number.

The audience demanded an encore, and the beloved jazz icon did not disappoint, finishing the evening with a haunting version of his classic "Lonely Woman," ending by a few fast exchanges with all members of his stellar band.

Many other performances dotted the festival, from Esperanza Spalding to Dee Dee Bridgewater to a lifetime achievement award to John Handy. We could not attend all of the shows due to time constraints, but the diversity, authenticity and setting in a great city where Tony Bennett left his heart proves that the San Francisco Jazz Festival is one of the best around. Hop on a cable car and check it out next year.

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