from the pages of December 1995

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San Francisco Jazz Festival

By Sandy Carter

No form of American music places more emphasis on creating something never heard before than jazz. At its core, jazz is about improvisation. Any person playing jazz should be capable of distinctive, spontaneous musical invention. As this requirement places a high premium on a unique individual voice, it also necessarily demands a relationship of respect and cooperation with other expressions of individuality. In short, jazz is a musical idiom based in values of tolerance and democracy.

Historically, the tradition has been wonderfully open-minded, with musical roots, instruments, and players coming from Europe, Africa, North and South America, the Caribbean, and Asia. In a relatively short period, the music evolved through numerous stylistic upheavals upsetting and broadening the very definition of jazz. Nevertheless, the jazz community, as liberal as it may be, has always argued about the parameters of "real jazz."

Fixing the borders of a music as restless as jazz is a difficult and hazardous proposition, at best. Still, the music is a tradition and, though it never arrives at one fixed way of doing things, musicians and listeners must inevitably decide how to value the past, the present, and the future. Over the past 60 years, this has led to disputes both grand and petty.

Some in the jazz world objected to the introduction of particular instruments such as the vibraphone and the electric guitar. Others protested the emergence of whole paradigms such as bebop, free jazz, and fusion. At one point during the 1950s, camps were formed for and against East Coast based "hot" jazz and West Coast rooted "cool" jazz. Since the birth of modern jazz in the post World War II years, many African-Americans have argued that jazz is essentially a black-defined art form. Today new battles rage regarding the merits of various hip-bop and avant-garde experiments versus the tradition conscious creations of the tuxedo clad neo-conservative school led by Wynton Marsalis.

While tensions, schisms, and resistance to change have always been a part of jazz, the scope of the music is ever widening. As jazz has developed an international audience, it has absorbed influences from around the globe. In a particularly significant development, both young and old generations of jazz musicians have recently developed an openness to forms and ideas from the full spectrum of the jazz tradition. Mix in a less snobby attitude toward rock, funk, R&B, and hip-hop, and you’ve got an exciting, open-ended new era of jazz.

At the 13th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival the marvelous diversity of the current jazz scene was well represented. Since its birth in 1983, the San Francisco Festival has earned a reputation for fresh, wide-ranging programming and this year’s event again showcased an impressively bold line-up stretching well beyond conventional notions of jazz. Running from October 13 through October 29, the festival offered concerts, films, and talks at various venues throughout San Francisco (and one show in Oakland). Honoring elders and pioneers, the festival included an homage to "Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith; a 75th anniversary "Images of Bird" salute to Charlie Parker, featuring Slide Hampton’s JazzMasters, with Phil Woods, James Moody, and Charles McPherson; a "Spirits of our Ancestors" tribute to pianist and composer Randy Weston; a Latin "Homenaje" to conga great Armando Peraza; and a "California Blues: A Tribute To Swingtime Records" celebration with Johnny Otis, Lowell Folsom, Charles Brown, and Jimmy Witherspoon. Other giants of jazz performing in concert included chamber jazz innovators The Modern Jazz Quartet, avant-pianist Cecil Taylor, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, funk organist Jimmy Smith, and the renowned trio of Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Gary Peacock.

As for the Bay Area’s much heralded "New Jazz," a two-day 11th Street Block Party presented over 20 bands playing assorted fusions of avant-free/acid jazz/hip-bop improvisations in the streets and clubs. Groups such as the Broun Fellinis, Dogslyde, Alphabet Soup, and John Tchicai and the Archetypes offered roaming, curious music fans a good taste of the thriving San Francisco-Berkeley-Oakland jazz underground. Further acknowledging the growing appeal of this alternative movement, the Festival also spotlighted the popular new jazz trio of guitarist Charlie Hunter (alongside the more straight-ahead trios of Joe Lovano and Jacky Terrason) in its "The Art of Trio" concert.

Unfortunately, except for a show by the uncategorizable Splatter Trio (performing with pianist Myra Melford), many of the most challenging and unorthodox musicians from the new jazz scene were conspicuously absent. Also missing were groups from the Bay Area’s flourishing community of multikulti and Asian American artists. Given the exceptionally broad offering of sounds, however, the San Francisco Jazz Festival was one of the most daring and varied events in jazz. Most significantly, it shows how an open, dynamic attitude can introduce jazz to a younger generation of listeners.

Commenting on the appeal of the new jazz trends, longtime San Francisco jazz critic Phillip Elwood summed up the high energy, groove based styles of younger players as "the jazz of the future." Speaking in a recent interview of the importance of exposing young people to jazz, Elwood explained, "There just haven’t been enough musicians like Miles Davis, players who recognize that the music must speak to younger audiences. No one’s going to be interested in John Coltrane flat out. His music is too detached, it takes too many steps to get there. The younger players today are filling in those steps."

Charlie Hunter is one of those younger players. The 28-year-old leader of two new jazz groups attracted a large and enthusiastic following playing in the many small San Francisco clubs showcasing alternative jazz sounds. As the buzz grew, both his hip-bop trio and his James T. Kirk quartet, a unit reworking the music of James Brown, Thelonious Monk, and Rashaan Roland Kirk, secured major label record deals. Discussing the appeal of his music Hunter said, "I grew up in Berkeley with all kinds of music around me -- Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, the Dead Kennedys, Parliament Funkadelic, Hendrix, Art Blakey, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. So our music reflects it all, and explores it all, and mixes it into jazz. And our generation relates to it."

Judging from the reception of Hunter’s trio at "The Art of Trio" concert at the Herbst Theater, even older jazz fans are being stirred by this exuberant, heavily-syncopated style of improvisation. With Hunter laying down fat rhythmic bass lines and concise solos on his custom made eight-string guitar (with two extra bass strings), tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis blowing a series of intriguing, but unpretentious leads, and drummer Scott Amendola supplying flexible, steady time, the trio stole the limelight from the top-billed trios of Joe Lovano and Jacky Terrason.

Another compelling performance from a new jazz group came from the Broun Fellinis at the 11th Street Block Party. Performing an early evening set, the Fellinis (a sax, bass, and drums unit) played a number of long, brooding pieces driven by intense extended soloing, fiery drum work, and hard thumping bass figures. Later, at a packed Paradise Lounge, the band stretched out to join free and bop influences with some powerful spoken word rants amplifying their dramatic spiritual/political vision.

In jazz, of course, youth have no monopoly on innovation. Past masters such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus, to mention a few, discovered new music throughout their entire lives. In the jazz world of today, singers Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln, both in their 60s, are reaching new creative peaks, while other senior artists such as Lionel Hampton, Benny Carter, and Doc Cheatham, all in their 80s, continue to play with verve and passion. All who play jazz, regardless of age, must "make it new."

The Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ), a group who some four decades ago defined its unique "classical" sound, demonstrated this essence of jazz in a magnificent performance opening the San Francisco Festival. During the 1950s, when MJQ originated a blend of classical influences with bebop, the group had detractors. Many felt the music was too cerebral and European. But like Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, MJQ, under the guiding influence of pianist John Lewis, realized that modern jazz needed more space and silence. With his firm grounding in classical forms, Lewis was also looking to infuse jazz with composed elements that would break free of the dominant theme-solos-theme conception. The most essential ingredients of the delicate MJQ sound were expressed in the exchanges and contrasts between Lewis’s elegant understated piano and vibraphonist Milt Jackson’s volatile and dazzling front-line soloing. With bassist Percy Heath elaborating melodic counterpoint bass lines and drummer Connie Kay supplying a subtle sense of swing, Lewis and Jackson’s captivating interplay maintained a fine balance of control and spontaneity. Despite the initial controversy to this "refined" approach to jazz, MJQ quickly gained wide popularity, and today critics and musicians have come to accept the group as one of the most important small ensembles in the history of jazz.

Billed as a concert "Dedicated To Connie," in honor of drummer Connie Kay who died last year after 40 years with the group, MJQ’s festival appearance concentrated on classics. With drummer Tootie Heath taking the place of Kay, the group retained its singular sound and on tunes such as Monk’s "Round Midnight," George Gershwin’s "Summertime," and their own "Django," structured and improvised a gorgeous tapestry of moods, tempo changes, solo flights, melodies and counter-melody. A great band, still playing with energy and inventiveness.

Randy Weston is another 40-year jazz veteran whose creative powers are clearly undiminished. The 69-year-old Brooklyn-born pianist/composer first gained acclaim in the jazz world in the late 1950s as a Thelonious Monk-inspired player applying Monk’s harmonies and sense of space to a mix of bebop, blues, ballads, and ragtime. Weston added to his reputation by writing a series of well received compositions ("Little Niles," "Hi-Fly," and "Pam’s Waltz"), but the full distinctiveness of his voice emerged in the 1960s in recordings blending various forms of traditional African music with jazz. Discussing his development with Downbeat in 1990, Weston explained, "Africa is a like a huge tree with branches to Brazil, to Cuba, and America. The approach to music is identical; rhythm, polyrhythm, call and response."

In 1960, collaborating with trombonist/composer/arranger Melba Liston, Weston merged African styles with jazz orchestration on a controversial album (including text by Langston Hughes) entitled Uhuru Africa. And over the last 35 years, much of it spent living and touring in Africa, Weston has continued to fuse North and West African music with ideas from Monk and Ellington on more than 30 albums, including the widely hailed Spirits of our Ancestors (1991) and Volcano Blues (1993), two big band albums with arrangements by Liston.

Weston’s much anticipated concerts at the San Francisco Jazz Festival showcased his artistry in three settings: solo, then with his African Rhythms Trio with bassist Santi Di Briano, conga player Neil Clark, and drummer Charlie Persip, and finally with the 13-piece Volcano Blues Band featuring jazz greats Teddy Edwards on tenor sax, Hamiett Bluiett on baritone sax, and Benny Powell on trombone.

Opening his performance alone at the piano, Weston introduced his first salute to ancestors as "Portraits of Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Waller, and Duke Ellington." Then, in an inspired, extended piece, he unfolded personalized interpretations of the sound and style of these masters. Following an engaging rendering of the Sonny Rollins associated tune "St. Thomas," the program shifted into the blues with the Rhythms Trio and 80-year-old singer/guitarist Robert Jr. Lockwood joining Weston on a soulful version of "C.C. Rider." Lockwood followed with "Jelly Jelly," during which various members of the Volcano Blues Band played a string of gutsy solos echoing the music’s original source.

Directing the show from his keyboard, Weston then led the Volcano big band through a set of blues based numbers composed by Monk, Ellington, and himself. At this time, his frequent and longtime collaborator, Melba Liston, wheelchair bound from a severe stroke she suffered in 1985, made her way on stage to warm applause. Weston has described Liston as a "great, great arranger" who "hears what I do and expands on it." In the final portion of the concert, the Volcano band highlighted Liston’s talents by playing outstanding renditions of her arrangements of Weston compositions. Particularly impressive was an updated version of "The Healers," a tune, as Weston described, "taking you someplace magical, spiritual, and mysterious." Beginning with a slow, rolling piano riff, "The Healers" gradually evolved through rumbling bass figures, percussion accents, sax, flute, and trombone solos and a thunderous full band crescendo before quietly concluding with Weston tapping one lone piano note against the backdrop of Di Briano’s haunting bowed bass.

In a different vein, the ever iconoclastic Cecil Taylor delivered an uninterrupted hour and one-half presentation of new music with his 40 or more member Creative Music Orchestra. By turns perplexing, provocative, stirring, and boring, Taylor’s performance, as expected, defied all definitions of jazz.

A monumental figure in avant garde jazz and one of the great piano virtuosos of the 20th century, Taylor has spent nearly 40 years blasting apart accepted forms of jazz with dense, non-linear labyrinths that seem to follow no order. In fact, Taylor’s music is purposefully directed, but by oddly shaped, hard to discern "unit structures" suggesting directions for improvisation, instrumental combinations, tempo, rhythm, and tonal variations. His piano voice is similarly idiosyncratic and "beyond free," but nonetheless, rooted in Fats Waller, Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Monk, and Ellington. Still, Taylor’s music is relentlessly demanding. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff has aptly described listening to Cecil Taylor as "a catharsis -- an onrush of emotional hailstorms, sunshowers, great winds, cunning breezes, forest fires, avalanches."

Accordingly, since the release of his radical debut album, Jazz Advance, in 1956, Taylor’s uncompromised creativity has only gradually gained the recognition it has long warranted. Despite such pioneering and influential albums as The World of Cecil Taylor, Conquistador, and Unit Structures, Taylor lived in near poverty throughout the 1960s. Fortunately, since the 1970s, with albums such as Indent, Silent Tongues, and Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly!, he has steadily garnered attention and acclaim, and in 1991 became a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation’s "genius" grant. None of this good fortune, however, has made Taylor any more accessible or any less adventurous. Those willing to flow with his gnarled and original visions may discover moments of poignant beauty and transcendence. Others will be turned off. At the Center for the Arts Theater in San Francisco, a choreographed orchestra set-up opened his presentation, with ensemble members strolling casually on stage, tuning and situating themselves before gradually initiating the rolling wave of sounds that would ebb and flow according to Taylor’s eccentric designs. At times distinct solos, loud-soft dynamics, and contrasting instrumental colors would break up the orchestra’s churning roar. And as always, Taylor’s astonishing piano flurries, when they could be heard, were extraordinary. However, the overload of ideas and sounds seemed to have left most of the audience shell shocked. But to follow Cecil Taylor, this is the price you pay.