Ornette Coleman at the SF Jazz Festival

Rudresh Mahanthappa
Vijay Iyer

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The San Francisco Jazz Festival has a lot to celebrate on its 20th anniversary. What was initially a three-day presentation of Bay Area artists has grown into a three-week marathon of concerts featuring internationally renowned headliners and legends. In the process, it has garnered a reputation as a world-class jazz festival. Such a transformation is unavoidably shaped by the intrinsic tension between community and development. Unless it is reconciled through responsive programming and outreach, the results can be corrosive and polarizing, reducing community to a bunch of sour grapes and development to ring-kissing suits in the other’s eyes. Given San Francisco’s tradition of progressive political vigor and scrutiny, the bar is set very high for SFJAZZ, the festival’s nonprofit presenters, and its performance strictly judged. On the basis of the opening days of this year’s anniversary edition, SFJAZZ deserved high marks in its accommodation of both community and development.

This accommodation was striking signified by the scene outside the Masonic Auditorium before successive nights of concerts by Caetano Veloso, and double bills pairing Wayne Shorter and Branford Marsalis’ quartets, and Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine and McCoy Tyner’s Big Band. On one side of the doors, the SFJAZZ All-Star High School Ensemble held forth; on the other, gleamed a silver TT Roadster convertible, title sponsor Audi’s crown jewel. Pointedly, the All-Stars, who nailed Charles Mingus charts as if they had played them for years on end, were all but swarmed by a vocally appreciative crowd, while the sports car was all but ignored. The kids were more than all right–they were dynamite.

The other telling moments in this regard were the on-stage remarks made before the premiere of pianist-composer Jon Jang’s hour-long “Up From the Root!” which reflected the deep impetus for unity within community that development occasionally ruptures. As any number of long-time Bay Area observers will confirm, the roots of SFJAZZ’s former incarnation, Jazz in the City, are entwined with those of the activist Asian-American jazz community, of which Jang remains a militant exponent. Suffice it to say there have been issues over the years. Therefore, Jang’s headlining of the first formal concert of this anniversary edition was a statement in itself; yet, SFJAZZ Executive Director Randall Kline’s introduction of Jang was gracious and statesmanlike. Jang, in turn, was upbeat and colloquial, reminiscing about the festival’s early days and even indulging in unwieldy sports metaphor, which most probably would not have occurred had the Giants not been in the World Series.

Thankfully, sideshows like the wannabee Bondmobile and celebrity bureaucrat A.B. Spellman, who barkerishly touted this year’s NEA Jazz Masters awards before Marsalis’ set, were dwarfed by the main events, beginning with the pairing of Jang’s “Up From the Root!” and Raw Materials, the duo of pianist Vijay Iyer and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa at the stately Herbst Theatre. This double bill made a timely statement about the evolution of the Asian-American Jazz community. Iyer and Mahanthappa are primary beneficiaries of the gains in Asian-American artistic mobility won by Jang and contemporaries like Anthony Brown, Mark Izu and Francis Wong in the 1980s. Whereas the early waves of Asian-American jazz were overt in their political agendas and use of traditional materials, Iyer and Mahanthappa are more discreet on both counts. They effortlessly traverse traditions, their materials repeatedly coiling with the tensions of Indian scales and unraveling with forward rhythmic motion. In this regard, Mahanthappa’s frequent employment of a bristling timbre is crucial, as it alternately gives their often piquant melodies an edge that is both earthy and modernistic. Iyer’s penchant for nuance in attack and harmony also contributes to the precision shading of the music; yet more importantly, Iyer’s daring flourishes seep out of the background to propel the music into new directions.

Iyer and Mahanthappa create compelling music.

Increasingly, Jang is moving away from using Chinese music simply as a template for jazz improvisation. “Up From the Root!” is an important benchmark in Jang’s approach to giving Chinese music a determinative role in shaping improvisations. The clearest indicator of this was the equal number of traditional Chinese and jazz musicians in Jang’s sextet. The three-piece Melody Of China went far beyond providing exotic ensemble color. Yangqin Zhao and Hong Wang improvised passionately on, respectively, Chinese analogs of the hammer dulcimer and viola, using methods of melodic extension and elaboration that may be centuries old, but sounded fresh to the jazzcentric ear. In addition to his rousing showcase towards the end of the piece, percussionist Wei Wang was in constant dialogue with drummer Eddie Marshall, producing a layered, ebullient pulse that put African and Asian components on equal footing. Intriguingly, Jang’s comping did not, as a rule, default to jazzlike changes, nor did his solos merely blues-up the Chinese materials; only on the gospel-inspired third movement did Jang’s playing rely on African-American conventions. The music’s jazz torch was carried mainly by the impressively resourceful Marshall and David Murray, whose tenor saxophone and bass clarinet solos were at their roof-raising best. Alternately exuding visceral power and pristine beauty, “Up From the Root!” significantly extends the horizons of Asian American jazz.

The Caetano Veloso concert was a two hour-plus spectacle replete with tightly choreographed lighting and hysterical, camera wielding female fans swarming the front of the stage seemingly on cue. The Brazilian singer-songwriter and his percussion-laden band cranked out tune after tune at a dizzying pace, reinforcing the delicious delusion perpetrated by masters of Brazilian music such as Veloso: regardless of one’s actual history with them, Veloso’s songs instantly convince the listener they are not simply familiar with them, but have a long-standing intimate relationship with them. Even his new, popish tunes trigger this sense of deja vu, a process strangely aided and abetted by the rapid-fire pace of Veloso’s show and the almost triple digit decibel levels-never has music so loud sounded so supple. Still, the apex of the concert was a short sequence of songs Veloso sang accompanied only by his acoustic guitar.

The double bill of Marsalis and Shorter proved the modern adage that less is more. Strangely, given his famous dissing of Cecil Taylor in Ken Burns’ Jazz–a subject he proved to be a bit thin skinned about in a recent Fresh Air interview–Marsalis’ set had the feel of batting practice. On tenor, Marsalis can jack them out of the park on scorchers like drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts’ “Bar Talk.” In doing so, Marsalis demonstrated more power than resourcefulness in a lengthy solo; using stinging motives and soaring cry-capped phrases, Marsalis, more often than not, bulled through the changes, rather than soar over them. Pianist Joey Calderazzo tried to follow suit, but did not fully tap the power of the instrument, keeping his mid-sized block chords in the middle register and his elaborate right hand lines in the octaves with the most anemic projection. To his credit, Marsalis proved to be agile on an off-speed feature soprano feature, charmingly turning phrases and playfully goosing the contours of the piece.

Overall, the set suggested that the closest Marsalis will be to the greats is as their opener. In retracing much of the terrain covered on Footprints–Live!, Wayne Shorter proved to be one of jazz’s greats, if only because he has created such a creative forum with his quartet of pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade that the deficits seeping into his saxophone playing go virtually unnoticed. On tenor, Shorter has lost some of the brawn that made his sound as influential as Coltrane’s. Given that Shorter uses the horn in short spurts, one can surmise that his stamina is flagging, too. He can still whip up bracing, if brief squalls on tenor (and soprano, too), but, more importantly his tenor still bravely and persuasively plumbs nuance-filled depths of his compositions. In the process, Shorter ceases to be a capitol “S” soloist and becomes an equal within a rapturous polyphony, the antecedents of which seem to be, intriguingly, in Vitous-era Weather Report. In this regard, the contributions of Shorter’s cohorts are particularly noteworthy. At first, the florid expressionism of the Latin music component of Perez’s style seem ill-fitting to such spaciousness; yet, Perez distilled unisons and massive chords from that tradition, incisively placing them within the music’s open spaces to reinforce their abstract qualities. Similarly, Patitucci and Blade created forward momentum without locking into explicit grooves or resorting to pat bombast. Many players signify intensity through facial expression and body language during their most heated outbursts; Patitucci and Blade’s displays were most pronounced when they held up, letting a statement drift into silence at the penultimate moment, a sure tip that they had thoroughly absorbed Shorter’s concepts.

Shorter’s music has always been rich in ideas, but he seems to be reaching a new summit with this quartet.

In retrospect, everything about the pairing of McCoy Tyner’s Big Band and Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine led to the perfect moment, when the pianist came on-stage at the end of the drummer’s set for a rendering of “Afro Blue.” Tyner’s opening set went beyond balancing polished arrangements and gritty solos, reconciling his cutting edge music of the ’60s and ’70s with the more mainstream flavor of his recent work. By turns powerful and sleek, the big band charts allowed the ongoing refinement in Tyner’s playing to be heard with arguably more clarity than it is with his working trio. His attack is not as pulverizing as it once was, but this should not suggest a mellowing on his part. If anything, the change seems traceable to the mechanics of his attack, as Tyner now very rarely raises his forearms for his signature treble trills and crushing bass octaves and chords. His wrists are now the source of his power, and his attack is subsequently more streamlined. Still, Tyner still has more than enough muscle to prod such fiery soloists such as tenor saxophonists Chico Freeman and Billy Harper, and to do justice to his Coltrane-era legacy on chestnuts like “Passion Dance.”

Likewise, Jones’ vitality is most evident with the Jazz Machine, if only because it demonstrates that the 75-year-old drummer can still single handedly carry a band. Saxophonist Pat LaBarbera, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, pianist Anthony Wonsey and bassist Gerald Cannon are all solid journeyman who consistently deliver serviceable solos in the expansive blowing format Jones favors. Yet their efforts on each tune were preliminaries to Jones’ solos. Robed in white, the drummer unleashed an astonishing amount of creative energy in each of his exhilarating expositions. Age has not diminished the intensity of his drumming; rather, it has added a glee to it. This element of Jones’ work spiked with Tyner’s walk-on for “Afro Blue.” Repeatedly, it was Jones’ uplifting swirl of polyrhythms that brought Tyner from initial tentativeness to full grandeur. Even though Cannon, Marsalis and LaBarbera took part, it was all Jones and Tyner, creating an indelible memory for all that witnessed it.