11/06/01

San Francisco Jazz Festival 2001

The late columnist Herb Caen often referred to San Francisco as "Baghdad by the Bay," a tribute to the variety and accessibility of the city's many attractions. This year's edition of the San Francisco Jazz Festival, with the range and depth of its program, once again helped the city live up to that moniker.

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a shot from the 2001 San Francisco Jazz Festival

Many festivals feature themed concerts, often celebrating the memory of great artists who have passed on. This year the San Francisco Jazz Festival, presented at a dozen venues around the city, the tributes seemed to follow spiritual, as well as musical lines.

The Festival opened on Oct. 24 with a celebration of what would have been John Coltrane's 75th year among us. Tommy Flanagan, with Peter Washington on bass and Albert "Tootie" Heath on drums, opened the evening. Flanagan's reminiscences of his neighbor, friend and musical colleague provided lovely touches throughout a set that rarely gelled. The flow of ideas from Flanagan continues unabated, but the execution falls short: that sense of graceful inevitability that pervades his best work was absent, undermined perhaps by the anything-but-intimate space of Masonic Auditorium. His reading of "Naima" was close to his customary perfection, and the rubato opening to "Giant Steps" recalled past glories as well.

McCoy Tyner followed, performing a solo recital of Coltrane material like that on his latest CD. Tyner was in brilliant form, powering through some of the material with a jabbing left hand that might have been inspired by Muhammad Ali, at other times seducing the melodies with the richer harmonies of his more recent style. His approach remains kaleidoscopic, extending some a song's elements, foreshortening others; now he takes a breath with the audience, as in the midst of "Mr. Day," when he ran a chain of loping triplets against the probing left hand to make sure the swinging undercurrent of his conception came through clearly.

The evening closed with the Pharoah Sanders Quartet, with William Henderson on piano, Robert Hurst on bass and the impressive Ralph Penland on drums. Opening with the splashing chords and rippling space that has become a familiar backdrop for his music, Sanders then kicked into a shuffle for a tenor version of "My Favorite Things." Sanders gives his extractions of Coltrane's later style a distinctive flavor; his melodic embellishments hint at deep harmonies, teasing the ear with their complexity, erupting now and then in shrieks or animal cries. For a finale, Tyner joined the group in a rousing blues that showed the way and opened up the form to let the spirit of John Coltrane shine through.

Grace Cathedral, the site of one of Duke Ellington's several Concerts of Sacred Music, has since played host to many memorable jazz experiences. Add another to the list, as on Nov. 2 Charles Lloyd and Zakir Hussain joined forces to commemorate the spirit of the great drummer Billy Higgins. Higgins, a frequent collaborator of Lloyd's passed away last spring; his radiant smile seemed to pervade the music and the majestic space it occupied that evening. Lloyd and Hussain began their performances at opposite ends of the great hall, Hussain's voice answering Lloyd's tenor as they converged on the central stage. Hussain established himself behind a full range of tables, spiking the pulse with a variety of wooden drums, a frame drum and other shakers; Lloyd explored and expanded on the simple thematic material that served as the seed crystal for each piece, interspersing them with his observations of our troubled world and reminiscences of "Master Higgins." The piece was commissioned by SFJAZZ, the festival organizers, and it found Lloyd performing in public on alto saxophone "for the first time in 30 or 40 years." His style, which retains a sense of freshness and identity on tenor, translates well to alto, but is strikingly redolent of both Parker and Coleman, as if he were playing the linkages between the two. Throughout, Hussain's astonishing virtuosity provided billows and eddies of time, colluding with Lloyd to further open the soaring space of the Cathedral. Since Higgins had prompted Lloyd to "go out among the people" with their music, Lloyd and Hussain walked the aisles as well, generating their own musical communion as they played.

The dark horse delight of this year's festival was on Nov. 3, "Bright Moments: Steve Turré Celebrates the Music of Rahsaan Roland Kirk," at Herbst Theater. Lots of questions before the fact: How can you recreate the unique energy of Rahsaan? How, at any rate, can you get a disparate group of musicians to do so? Those questions were most satisfactorily resolved by the evening's end. Turré brought together a group that might not, in fact, have worked, were it not for his leadership and the linkage he had to Rahsaan. With James Carter on tenor sax and clarinet, Vincent Herring on soprano and alto saxes, Mulgrew Miller on piano, Buster Williams on bass and Lewis Nash on drums, he certainly had the horsepower, if he could get everyone pulling in the same direction. He did-big time.

Right out of the box, with "Three for the Festival," everything was working. Carter took a crowd-pleasing turn over a stop-time figure, and the energy level never flagged from then on. The lovely ballad "Stepping into Beauty" reminded us of Kirk's compositional legacy from Charles Mingus, as Turré closed with a heartfelt plunger-muted solo. Mingus' spirit was present as well in "Bright Moments," with Turré adding the spice of maracas, and in Carter's quote from "Haitian Fight Song" during Kirk's "Black and Crazy Blues" which also elicited Miller's best solo of the night, down-home and modern at one time. For the evening's finale, "One Ton," Turré brought out his conch shells and put the crowning touch on an evening of extraordinary energy and "Many Blessings." Bright moments, indeed.

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