Harry S. Pariser By

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ECM Fest
San Francisco, CA
March 26-29, 2015

In 1969, German record producer Manfred Eicher founded ECM, a label which would change music history. Since then his "Edition of Contemporary Music" imprint has more than lived up to its name, issuing well over a thousand albums by classic jazz, experimental, world and classical artists.

A small yet brilliant portion of that artistry was brought to San Francisco's SFJAZZ Collective for four nights under the marquee of ECM Fest. Each evening was sold out (or nearly so), attesting to the label's popular appeal.

The first night brought the amazing saxophonist Chris Potter and his Underground Orchestra—an expanded version of his longer-standing Underground quartet—to the stage. Recording and gigging extensively with artists including guitarist Pat Metheny, bassist Dave Holland and the late drummer Paul Motian, Potter has evolved, over the last quarter century, into one of his generation's most influential saxophonists.

Introducing him, SFJAZZ Director Randall Kline commented that when he asked the late Joe Henderson (who now has the "Joe Henderson Lab," a performance space at SFJAZZ, named after him) whom he might see as up-and-coming amongst the younger generation of his fellow sax players, the only name he mentioned was Potter's.

Putting together an 11-member ensemble is a formidable task but Potter did a first-class job of selecting outstanding musicians. The standout string quartet, featuring virtuosos including violinist Mark Feldman (no stranger to ECM fans), swung brilliantly with the ensemble, meshing particularly well with pianist Craig Taborn, vibraphonist/marimbaist Joseph Doubleday and acoustic bassist Scott Colley.

Much of the evening's musical repertoire was from the "Imaginary Cities Suite," a highly ambitious four-part work that appears on Imaginary Cities (ECM, 2015), which reviewer John Kelman called "the first real masterpiece of 2015."

"Lament," the CD's opening track, led off the evening, followed by "Shadow Self" and "Sky." During the extended "Imaginary Cities Suite" which followed, Taborn reached inside his piano to pluck the strings while Feldman hand-plucked his violin strings to remarkable effect. Throughout the set, Potter soloed with great energy and finesse on tenor and soprano saxophones and bass clarinet, while drummer Nate Smith provided furious energy. Shaven-headed Colley worked his way up and down the neck of his acoustic bass, while his electric bassist counterpart Fima Ephron added color to the mix.

It all came to a climax as Potter extolled SFJAZZ for offering him the opportunity to perform. A standing ovation brought the orchestra, without the string section, back for a rollicking encore of "Good Hope," an unrecorded tune.

The next night was quite a different experience when pianist Vijay Iyer took the stage. The much acclaimed Iyer, a former Bay Area resident, has frequently visited San Francisco at the invitation of San Francisco Performances, but this was his first official performance at SFJAZZ.

Having released Break Stuff (ECM, 2015) earlier this year, Iyer laid down a wonderful set of piano subtleties, percussive surges, abstractions and interplays with his longtime (eleven years on) drummer Marcus Gilmore and bassist Stephan Crump, both of whom soloed with passion.

On Saturday night, a packed and expectant house awaited the star attraction: Brazilian guitar legend Egberto Gismonti, who flew in from Brazil to play this one date. Red-kerchiefed and with a voluminous pony tail, Gismonti sat down and, using a knee pad which he constantly had to adjust between songs, launched into an extraordinary hour in the company of his special 10-string guitar. The original violão de sete cordas, the Brazilian seven-string guitar, was introduced to Brazil in the late 19th century, and has long been a feature of both choro and samba music. (Gismonti also plays frevo music).

Gismonti ended the first of a number of unannounced tunes, in this case a mix of "Alegrinho" and "Saudações, with three upward flourishes with his fingers. During "Dança dos Escravos" he tapped his guitar, generating percussive tones; throughout, his meditative, precise fingering proved mesmerizing.

Before turning to the piano, he offered a brief set of unmiked remarks about his association with the late bassist Charlie Haden. Sitting down at the piano, his long white ponytail flowing behind him, he produced a wonderful cascade of tonal landscapes. Following a standing ovation, he encored with "Silence" by Haden, a tune he had recorded with the man himself (along with saxophonist Jan Garbarek, on the 1979 release Magico (ECM).

The final ECM date easily matched the level of the wonders presented during the festival's previous evenings. 73 year-old trumpeter Tomasz Stanko first garnered attention during his tenure with Cecil Taylor's Big Band, along with innumerable other associations, but has built a significant discography of his own since returning to ECM in 1994, first recording Matka Joanna (1995) and continuing on with eight additional titles in the ensuing years.

Stańko's playing and composing, while not mainstream, is more conventional than what one might expect given his pedigree. He certainly has a talent for picking spectacular sideman, including Cuban-born pianist David Virelles, whose piano—percussive at times, subtle at others—was truly inspirational.

Stańko began the set fiddling with his trumpet. A fluid solo marked the commencement of "Yaukiel's Lid," one tune among several others presented during the set composed by Stańko for the inauguration of Warsaw, Poland's Jewish Museum, where saxophonist Ravi Coltrane also joined his group. Swiveling his trumpet to and fro, he played fluently and with passion. "Yaukiel's Lid" led into "Ballad Number 9" and six other tunes, before Stańko'd group played the title track to Wislawa (ECM, 2015). The set culminated in "Polin" (the Hebrew name for Poland). Throughout, bassist Reuben Rogers (born and bred in the Virgin Islands) played with innovative and heartfelt passion, while Ohio-born drummer Gerald Cleaver, whose father was also a drummer, added ably to the mix, whether on brushes or sticks.

A standing ovation brought the ensemble back for a rollicking "Oni" ("They," in Polish).

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