San Sebastian, a coastal resort city in Spanish Basque Country, isn’t the type of place you should need any particular reason to visit. Without Heineken Jazzaldia, the annual jazz bonanza held there each summer, there’s still plenty to do-time spent on any of the three main beaches, at one of the many gastronomically renowned eateries, or in one of innumerable old-city bars serving tapas-like pintxos should ensure a state of nirvana. If I might sink to travel-writing levels of fawning for a minute, it’s the sort of place that inspires melancholy upon arrival, if only because you realize you’ll have to leave soon enough.
With the festival, the rapture is sealed for good; for the 43rd edition, at least, much of the best jazz in the world was delivered to the town, with nearly impeccable diversity in the programming: There was fusion (Return to Forever’s high-profile reunion, Jean-Luc Ponty, the Soft Machine Legacy Band), august vocal jazz (Dianne Reeves, Diana Krall, Kate McGarry), definitive avant-gardists (Anthony Braxton, Steve Coleman, Marc Ribot), some of the best piano-trio models still working in jazz (Keith Jarrett, Kenny Barron, Ahmad Jamal), and even R&B (Maceo Parker) and hard blues (Johnny Winter).
The production and organization were also something to marvel at: The performances began in the early evening and were based in or around the Centre Kursaal, a postmodern performing arts center comprising two angled buildings that, especially when illuminated at nightfall, appear as giant ice cubes, their splendid, translucent glow looking out over the Bay of Biscay. Slightly closer to (or actually on) the beach were three venues hosting free events: an intimate, small-club-sized tent; a larger stage the size of a rock club; and, larger still, a festival stage sitting right on the beach where thousands of people would gather to catch more pop-oriented acts until the morning’s wee hours. A stone’s throw away from that scene was the Teatro Victoria Eugenia, a gorgeously restored Italian-style theater built in the early years of last century, covered in sandstone facades and boasting, on its inside, startlingly beautiful Chinese artwork and Opera-house balconies. If the Kursaal and Teatro looked superb, they were sonic marvels.
The festival began in the Kursaal’s large auditorium with Keith Jarrett’s standards trio featuring Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock, a now-historic group that tends to perform only in such mighty surroundings. With flash photography strictly forbidden, the Kursaal’s meditative lighting scheme that cast everything in the venue in absolute darkness except for the performers, and a rapt audience, Jarrett seemed to find the solace he searches for at his gigs. (I’d purchased a cheap digital watch for the trip that I hadn’t yet learned how to operate properly, and I prayed its alarm wouldn’t sound.) The appeal of this trio, as it always has been, is the romantic transformation of common source material into elastic psalms. The music feels familiar but then not, with DeJohnette’s swing evolving with the tunes into an amorphous rhythmic persistence; Jarrett likewise begins with sheer melody and entrances himself in post-Bill Evans harmony and texture, moaning and standing with the crests of his fluttering lines.
Later that evening at the Teatro Victoria, slide-guitar great Johnny Winter performed in an image that might be the polar opposite of Jarrett’s trio, cranking out loud, rough, sometimes corny (the newer tune “Lone Wolf”) electric blues that verged on rock. (This was one of Winter’s “blues-only” sets, which well suited the aging guitarist, who, like B.B. King, now performs sitting down.) After a very Stevie Ray Vaughan-inspired warm-up jam featuring Winter’s rhythm section and fiery guitarist Paul Nelson, Winter tore through blues standards with raucous spirit-he was especially dexterous on “Hideaway,” “Red House” and, later, “Highway 61,” finally donning his Gibson Firebird guitar at the encore to crank out robust slide licks. If there was anything offered here in the way of revisionism, it’d be Winter’s rep as a rhythm player-he shuffled, boogie’d and balladeer’d with the best, playing a lexicon of turnarounds and keeping impressive time even in his frail physical state.