Live Review: 2018 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest

The California bash featured Marcus Roberts, Vincent Herring, Jane Monheit, and Eddie Gale, among many others

SJZSF29_Marcus Roberts_The Modern Jazz Generation & Marcus Roberts Trio_(C)Walter Wagner-1350262

Marcus Roberts (at piano) with the Modern Jazz Generation at the 2018 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest (photo: Walter Wagner)

Now in its 29th year of operation, geographically and artistically positioned between the SFJAZZ season and the Monterey Jazz Festival, San Jose Jazz Summer Fest (which ran from Aug. 10-12 in downtown San Jose, Calif.) presented a balanced roster of jazz, blues/New Orleans, and Latin-oriented artists on 12 outdoor and indoor stages. For the most part, its program was palatable and wide-ranging, never extreme or driven by big names. The prevailing atmosphere was a mixture of discovery for newbies and reaffirmation for longtime fans. Concurrently, popular soul and funk performers such as Johnny Gill, Confunkshun, Kool & the Gang, Booker T.’s Stax Revue, the Soul Rebels, Lalah Hathaway, and local favorites Lydia Pense & Cold Blood with Fred Ross were included for uninitiated attendees and/or those disinterested in jazz who just wanted to party.

Unquestionably, the most vibrant and daring segment of SJJS was its last, featuring Marcus Roberts and the Modern Jazz Generation, which the blind virtuoso pianist, currently on faculty at Florida State University, founded in 2012. The tentet was anchored by longtime Roberts associates, drummer Jason Marsalis and bassist Rodney Jordan; the remaining members, all brass players, are either alumni or current students in FSU’s music program. Under Roberts, Marsalis, and Jordan’s guidance, the ensemble played an ambitious, nearly two-hour suite (and that was its length after dropping a movement) that profoundly showcased all the players. Similar to Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Orchestra but in a more modern context, they swung hard through complex arrangements and entertained the audience by focusing on romantic themes. The suite was based on an imaginary couple going through the four stages of love: attraction, projection, conflict, and resolution, beginning with the dramatic “The Mystery of Romance.”

Alto saxophonist Vincent Herring’s Story of Jazz: 100 Years program was similarly powerful, spanning the eras from ragtime to contemporary jazz with high-caliber sidemen such as saxophonists James Carter and Eric Alexander, trumpeters Jon Faddis and Brian Lynch, trombonist Steve Turre, pianist Mike LeDonne, drummer Carl Allen, bassist Kenny Davis, and Nicolas Bearde handling vocals and narration. Due to time constraints, the group’s 65-minute set didn’t touch on any current subgenres. Nonetheless, the musicians impressed during stretches of Dixieland (“St. Louis Blues,” “When You’re Smiling”), blues (“Summertime”), Ellington big-band, stride (“Ain’t Misbehavin’”), and Chick Corea’s “Spain,” which represented an international influence on jazz. Closing out the set were contemporary grooves “Mr. Magic,” “Birdland,” and “Street Life,” featuring Bearde’s soulful singing. Herring admitted that they owed the audience another 20 years of music.

James Carter performs with Vincent Herring's Story of Jazz: 100 Years at the San Jose Jazz Summerfest
James Carter (center) performs with Vincent Herring’s Story of Jazz: 100 Years at the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest (photo: Tom Ehrlich)

The 10th installment of SJJSF’s Jazz Organ Fellowship featured 17-year-old wunderkind Matthew Whitaker and veteran Brian Charette. Whitaker, currently enrolled at Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School of the Lighthouse Guild for the visually impaired, and also a student in the Manhattan School of Music’s Precollege Jazz Program, was a force to be reckoned with. Supported by bassist/guitarist Edward (Ted) Morcaldi III and drummer Sipho Kunene, the fast-emerging organist was funky straight out the gate, adroitly mixing jazz standards and R&B tunes such as “Play It Back,” “More Than Yesterday,” “I’ll Be Around,” an homage to Jimmy Smith (“I Remember Jimmy”), and a medley of Earth, Wind & Fire songs to garner an enthusiastic standing ovation. Charette also grooved mightily with his trio and showcased tunes from his latest CD, Groovin’ with Big G (“Big G” being tenor saxophonist George Coleman). The organist was especially hard-bumping on Jimmy Smith’s classic “The Champ.”

Lani Hall (with husband Herb Alpert looking on) performs at the 2018 San Jose Jazz Summerfest
Lani Hall (with husband Herb Alpert looking on) performs at the 2018 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest (photo: Ken Hunt)

Married multi-Grammy-winners trumpeter Herb Alpert and vocalist Lani Hall provided a lighter, cheery, and relaxed funk alternative to driving jazz sets. Backed by Bill Cantus on keyboards, Hussain Jiffry on bass, and Michael Shapiro on drums, they chronicled their 50+-year careers. Intermingled with solo material and tunes by Alpert’s legendary Tijuana Brass—including “A Taste of Honey” and the “Casino Royale Theme”—and Sergio Mendes’ Brasil ’66 (in which Hall sang) were videos, some from the mid-’60s. Latin and jazz standards “Besame Mucho” and “Body and Soul” were adeptly handled with Hall singing sweetly, along with Alpert’s light funk grooves on “Rise” and “Human Nature.” Displaying male vulnerability long before it was a trend was “This Guy’s in Love With You,” which had the audience singing along.

Among the other Los Angeles-based artists at SJJSF were newly migrated singer Jane Monheit, Barbara Morrison’s quintet, and Katie Thiroux’s trio. Monheit was regal while concentrating mostly on songs from her latest CD, The Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald. Supple players Andy Langham on piano, Dave Robaire on bass, and Ricky Montalbano on drums supported the Long Island native for standouts “All Too Soon” and “Something’s Gotta Give,” along with “Quiet Nights” (sung in Portuguese and English) and “It’s the Wrong Time,” which aren’t on the album. Veteran Morrison charmed the attendees with personal stories and standards such as “On the Street Where You Live,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Lullaby of Birdland,” and “We’re in This Love Together,” dedicated to Al Jarreau. Thiroux sang melodiously and scatted while playing bass on “Together,” “Willow Weep for Me,” and “Let’s Fall in Love” with blind pianist/Clark Terry protégé Justin Kauflin and drummer Matt Witek.

Eddie Gale at the 2018 San Jose Jazz Summerfest
Eddie Gale at the 2018 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest (photo: Ronald Davis)

SJJSF also showcased some homegrown talent. Trumpeter Eddie Gale, who was proclaimed the City of San Jose’s Official Ambassador of Jazz in 1974, took command of the stage with his American Spiritual Jazz Unit tentet. They provided a mixture of Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Ali Farka Touré on numbers like “African Sunshine,” “Meditation on World Peace,” and “The Jazz Rapp.” The latter tune turned into a lengthy jam, with the crowd playing percussion instruments that had been passed around at the start of the set. San Francisco String Trio member Jeff Denson displayed his bass and vocal prowess with a quartet featuring Paul Hanson on bassoon/electronics, Dahveed Behroozi on piano and Fender Rhodes, and Alan Hall on drums. Denson’s elastic vocals enlivened “When I Get It Right,” Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” and Abbey Lincoln’s poetic ballad “Bird Alone.” Singer Paula West teamed up with pianist Adam Shulman’s trio, including bassist John Wiitala and drummer Greg Wyser-Pratte, to offer superb versions of American Songbook staples such as Leonard Feather’s “Man Wanted,” “I’m Glad There Is You,” and a samba-flavored “I Love Paris.” She additionally inserted a few departures via Jobim’s “Waters of March,” Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” and Randy Newman’s “Short People.”

Doug Beavers at the 2018 San Jose Jazz Summerfest
Doug Beavers at the 2018 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest (photo: Tom Ehrlich)

Latin jazz and salsa are always top attractions at SJJS. Grammy winner (2006) and nominee (2018) Doug Beavers’ nonet Titanes del Trombón: Tribute to Cheo Feliciano was a major force, as Beavers and fellow trombonists Mike Rinta and Greg Saul soloed intensely over riveting salsa classics and new pieces, which—along with Carlos Rosario’s vocals—set a large crowd dancing in front of the stage. L.A.’s Orquesta Son Mayor, an 11-person band heavily influenced by Pérez Prado, Orquesta Aragón, and Oscar de León, was more diversified with two trumpets, baritone sax, trombone, and four vocalists, a couple of whom doubled on percussion. Also from the Afro-Caribbean perspective, John Santos Quartet + Orestes Vilató, Bobi Céspedes, and Jose Roberto Hernandez were scintillating. Céspedes and Hernandez sang passionately, while Santos’ percussion playing and septet arrangements boasted barely believable rhythms and sophisticated interactions.

Also integrated into the SJJSF’s program were some related Brazilian stylings from Bay Area singer/percussionist Sandy Cressman and Homenagem Brasileira. Her supporting band included husband/trombonist Jeff Cressman, keyboardist Murray Low, bassist David Belove, and drummer Phil Hawkins, showcasing breezy selections from their new CD Entre Amigos along with works by Oscar Castro-Neves, Hermeto Pascoal, and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

New to the festival this year was the British Airways Music Lounge, an exclusive and intimate venue (capacity: 60) that featured special two-hour sets from drummer Makaya McCraven’s quartet, pianist/vocalist Aaron Abernathy’s trio, singer Tiffany Austin’s trio and singer/pianist Sarah McKenzie’s quartet. The lounge also spotlighted guitarist Yoshiaki Miyanoue’s trio, trumpeter Theo Croker’s quartet, pianist Emmet Cohen (solo), and Vincent Herring and Mike LeDonne (duo) for fast-paced 30-minute showcases. Overall, this new concept is reflective of San Jose Jazz Summer Fest’s spirit; it’s an event that’s willing to experiment and not afraid to pioneer.