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John Handy at Yoshi's San Francisco

Harry S. Pariser By

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John Handy
Yoshi's San Francisco
San Francisco, California
August 31, 2014

If one thinks of iconic Bay Area musicians, saxophonist John Handy immediately comes to mind. Born in 1933 in Dallas, Texas, Handy is an accomplished horn player who, while best known for his work on alto, also plays tenor and baritone sax, oboe, clarinet and saxello. Due to his age, Handy plays only infrequently in public (most notably with visiting luminaries such as Randy Weston) so his recent gig at Yoshi's San Francisco drew a full house.

Given John Richard Handy III's local jazz legend status, he has his pick of sidemen. For this gig he made some astute choices. Marcus Shelby—an accomplished bassist, orchestra leader, composer and jazz lecturer—held down the contrabass at the back of the stage. An accomplished drummer who recently returned to the Bay Area, Akira Tana has played with a whole host of jazz greats, including Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Zoot Sims, Hubert Laws, and Milt Jackson, and has also co-led a number of collaborations with bassist Rufus Reid. Also known for his work with the harp, violinist Carlos Reyes was born in Paraguay and immigrated to the Bay Area, where he performed with the Oakland Youth Symphony. Reyes tours internationally and has a few CDs to his name.

Originally from Martinez, pianist Joe Warner classifies himself as a "blues musician" and has collaborated extensively with bassist Shelby. A regular at the late underground jazz spot "Kaleidoscope" in San Francisco's Mission District, Warner may have been the youngest musician on the stage, but he most definitely held his ground while playing with his seniors.

Handy is best known for his work with Charles Mingus, but he has taught at universities, led numerous ensembles and was a member of the local band Bebop & Beyond. He has at least 18 recordings to his name.

Taking the stage in a yellow jacket, white pants and white hat, Handy went straight for his tenor and soloed, as Reyes watched from the side of the stage. Warner's piano solo interacted with Tana's drums as "Sniff Sniff" took form and Reyes plucked, fingered and bowed his violin—producing a scintillating, rapid-fire solo. It was then Shelby's turn to solo before Handy returned to bring the tune to an end.

Handy once more soloed at the introduction to the mellow "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," Frank Sinatra's first hit recorded with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Reyes' violin waxed romantic, and the ever-smiling Tana ended with a flourish with his brushes. The Handy-penned "Afternoon Outing" followed. After Hardy's intro, Reyes took an extended solo. Shelby grinned as he plucked his bass, and, following Tana's drum solo, Handy re-entered and played the theme.

Later in the set, Handy introduced "Three in One." "This was written in 1958, no I mean 1968. I forget everything." Reyes then flipped the score on the music stand so that it no longer read upside down and Handy then could read it, which elicited audience laughter. Commencing, Handy launched into a searing alto solo employing his rapid-fire fingering. The trio swung, anchored by Warner's keyboard playing. Then Reyes soloed again, and the tune ended as Handy returned, bowing with his sax as he met with applause.

An hour into the set, Handy introduced vocalist Tiffany Austin—a lawyer and Marcus Shelby collaborator—who sat in for the next two numbers: powerful versions of "In a Sentimental Mood" and "St. Louis Blues." The former included one of Handy's piercing solos and some subtle mallet playing by Tana.

Prefacing "Spanish Lady," the tune which brought this enchanting set to its conclusion, Reyes remarked that Handy "is one of the last icons of real jazz. We are so lucky to have him here in the Bay Area. Thank you John, for always being true to yourself." Violin, alto sax, bass, percussive piano and drums joined to produce a heady soup of sound as the set concluded.

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