John Calloway at the Red Poppy Art House

Ken Vermes By

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John Calloway
Red Poppy Art House
San Francisco, CA
December 14, 2013

The holidays can be tough on jazz and world music fans in the San Francisco Bay Area. It seems the clubs and restaurants are all looking to please the crowds that go out rarely, but suddenly appear during this time. That's why the appearance of longtime Bay area flautist John Calloway at the Red Poppy Art House was a special holiday treat. For those that don't know it, the Red Poppy is one of the real jewels of San Francisco's art and music scene.

On its web site is a brief history: "In February 2003, Alexander Allende and Todd Brown signed a lease on a big empty room on the corner of Folsom and 23rd that had one closet, a bathroom, and two layers of decades-old, wall-to-wall linoleum flooring. It was there that they co-founded an interdisciplinary artist space named "Porfilio Is-Mission Art House." Armed with a couple of credit cards and basic carpentry skills, the two set out to work, tearing up the linoleum, power sanding the floor, and building interior structures. After two months of solid work and much help from friends, they forged a basic artist workspace and dance studio. By selling artwork and teaching weekly Argentine tango classes Allende and Brown were able to afford the rent." Brown is still very much involved in the Poppy, and MC'd the show with Calloway. The concert coincided with what is now difficult times for many Mission area residents, as the wave of technology professionals are quickly gentrifying Mission housing, and forcing longtime residents to deal with an emerging housing affordability crisis. This was the backdrop of the performance.

Calloway, a frequent collaborator with John Santos, has also performed internationally with Israel Lopez Cachao, Omar Sosa, and Max Roach. He is currently the music director of the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble of San Francisco and the Afro-Cuban Ensemble of San Francisco State University. But seeing Calloway lead his own band is a rare occurrence. The Bay Area has a strong flute scene, and for fans of the instrument, seeing a full concert level performance of these players including Rebecca Kleinman, Quique Cruz (and his band Quijerema), and Masayuki Koga, each a world class player, is not an easy or readily available occurrence.

Calloway's band for this performance included Mike Arnold on bass, John Monahan, guitar, David Flores on percussion, and other guests including two very special young vocalists, Alyssa Almaguer and Alicia Mana.

The group performed jazz tunes, such as "Land of Make Believe" and covers, like "A change is going to come," and a rousing version of "La Fiesta," a difficult and exciting early Chick Corea piece. The show also included a couple of "rap" performances, discussions of the Mission housing crises and a beautiful folk tune by the area Superintendent of Schools, Richard Caranza. The entire night was a rousing and special gathering of neighbors and friends of Calloway, who was cooking a stew of all his styles and influences. But behind it all was the power and beauty of a flautist of the highest caliber, playing the bass flute, for example, as if it was a piccolo. There was not a better example on this night of how there are brilliant musicians and musical moments still to be had in a world that often overlooks the most perfectly gorgeous and transformative musical sounds.

True musical fans latch on to these moments and treasure them. And following a favorite instrument, and special artists, can lead to the most exciting discoveries in musical art. Calloway could be said to be a treasure who needs to be heard more often and in settings that give room for the full expression of his experiences. The Red Poppy is just the place for such a special and spectacular night. And for that we are grateful.

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