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2022 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest

The 32nd edition of the festival was short on major headliners but long on great music

Stanley Clarke at the 2022 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest
Stanley Clarke at the 2022 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest (photo: Robert Birnbach)

Like many things in Northern California’s Silicon Valley—headquarters for Apple, Facebook, Google, and Adobe—the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest has humble, community-focused origins. It began as a free two-day event, one day for fusion and the other mainstream. Over the last 32 years SJJSF has grown into a three-day affair, begun charging admission (in 2006), and burgeoned with R&B, blues, funk, Latin/salsa, swing, next-gen, and even offerings beyond music performance; on the schedule this year were film screenings, photography, interviews, and interactive exhibits.

Despite all this expansion, SJJSF has maintained serious jazz cred, with at least half of its stages solely focused on the mainstream and/or variations of it. For 2022 there were no jazz superstars, with one exception: legendary bassist Stanley Clarke. Leading a youthful band consisting of keyboardist Jahari Stampley, saxophonist Emilio Modeste, drummer Jeremiah Collier, and guitarist Colin Cook, Clarke intermeshed Brazilian music, straight-ahead, and fusion. The epic “No Mystery,” composed by his Return to Forever bandmate, the late Chick Corea, concluded the set and was a monumental crowd-pleaser on the main stage.

Also on the main stage was tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson’s Charlie Parker at 100 program, featuring a stellar trio of alto-saxophone co-conspirators in Gary Bartz, Charles McPherson, and Donald Harrison. They joyfully and inventively celebrated both Bird and bebop with high-spirited solos and interactions on tunes such as “Confirmation,” “Lover Man,” and “Blues for Alice.” Solidly supporting the saxophonists were Jeremy Manasia on piano, David Williams on bass, and Willie Jones III on drums.

The star-studded Bobby Watson (reeds) & Curtis Lundy (bass) Quartet with pianist Cyrus Chestnut and drummer Victor Jones was on a smaller nearby stage. Between all four musicians is a web of connections, beginning with Watson and Lundy’s groundbreaking late-’80s/early-’90s group Horizon. Watson’s recent Smoke Sessions recordings Back Home in Kansas City (out in October), Keepin’ It Real (2020), and Made in America (2017) also include Lundy and Jones. Chestnut may be the “newbie” of the group, but he recorded Midnight Melodies in 2014 with Lundy. For the quartet’s upcoming album, the pianist contributed the vibrant ballad “A Star in the East,” which was serenely performed by the ensemble. As a special bonus, trumpeter Terell Stafford, a longtime colleague of Watson’s and an integral member of Horizon, sat in for a segment that fervidly recalled the vibrant hard-bop sound of the mid-’50s to mid-’60s.

Exclusive to SJJSF are the Jazz Organ Fellowship concerts, presented by the eponymous Oakland-based society at adjacent performance areas. Founded in 2004, the JOF promotes and preserves the jazz organ tradition with workshops and camps for junior-high and high-school students. The fellowship shows were both opening and closing sets for the festival, on two different stages.

First up was Tony Monaco. A protégé of organ giant Jimmy Smith, Monaco was the JOF Award Winner for 2022 and will be listed in its Hall of Fame. The honored organist, who performed with guitarist Bruce Forman and drummer Darrell Green, was gracious, a bit of a raconteur, and in top musical form. His standout tunes were the soothing ballad “It’s You or No One,” the robust homage “I’ll Remember Jimmy,” abundant with solos and tradeoffs, and the funk groove of “Indonesian Nights.”

Tony Monaco and Darrell Green San Jose 2022
Tony Monaco (left) and Darrell Green at the 2022 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest (photo: Robert Birnbach)

The JOF’s other set presented a momentous celebration of the life and music of Dr. Lonnie Smith, who passed away in 2021. It featured Smith acolytes Wil Blades, Akiko Tsuruga, and Ronnie Foster, all of whom shared anecdotes but did most of their talking through the organ. Guitarist Peter Bernstein stalwartly worked with all of them, while drummer Green played with Blades and Foster, and drummer Akira Tana only supported Tsuruga.

Blades inserted light Latin touches for “I’m Beginning to See the Light” and scorched on Smith’s “Play It Back,” which included a barrage of a solo from Green. Contrarily, Tsuruga focused at first on slow-crescendo grooving, only later shifting up-tempo for Smith’s pulsating “Weep Weep Weep.”

Foster, the most emotional of the organists, could barely speak about his late mentor but pulled himself together to play an enticing segment that included “In a Mellow Mood” and hip jaunt “Swingin’,” the last song Foster played for Smith before the latter’s passing. The remarkable tribute ended with the other organists alternating to join Foster; they adeptly maneuvered around the organ for high-wire antics that delighted the audience.

Besides being a mainstay of the Organ Fellowship sets, Bernstein worked with fellow guitarist Bruce Forman for a set of standards-oriented material that showcased masterful fretwork and stimulating interactions. The cool vibe of the show was akin to being in the pickers’ living room, a mix of fun banter, friendship and delectable musicianship with a very receptive crowd loving every note played.

Working a similar vibe was the Acoustic Guitar Summit, consisting of Oregon-based John Stowell with Bay Area guitarists Rick Vandivier and Mason Razavi, all supported by New York percussionist Dave Meade. Typical for appearances of this nature, the guitarists tastefully played together and also did distinctive individual mini-sets. Most noteworthy was Stowell’s take on Bill Evans and Jim Hall’s “I Hear a Rhapsody,” along with Horace Silver’s “Peace” (done bossa-style) and Herbie Hancock’s “Driftin’.” Razavi also shone brilliantly on Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.”

Fast-rising vibraphonist Joel Ross has been topping polls and attracting listeners with his near-minimalistic and atmospheric approach to his instrument. Although he’s very capable of playing enticing funk or hard-bop grooves, his San Jose set instead enthralled a youthful audience through deep layering and glacier-like transitions. Ross’ quartet with Jeremy Corren on piano, Matt Oakes on bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums played on an ultra-high level for several extended improvisational pieces, including a driving version of Monk’s “Evidence.”

Stanley Clarke wasn’t the only fusion-friendly act at SJJSF 2022. Keyboardist Cameron Graves, an alternating member of Clarke’s band and a longstanding member of Kamasi Washington’s West Coast Get Down collective, performed with his own group. Graves’ music, inspired in part by his interest in the anonymously written philosophico-spiritual The Urantia Book, falls somewhere between the fusion of Return to Forever and the progressive rock of King Crimson, with some Metallica thrown in. Joined by bassist Max Gerl, drummer Mike Mitchell and guitarist Colin Cook, the keyboardist played hard-hitting compositions from records Planetary Prince, Seven, and Live from the Seven Spheres.

Bobby Watson at the 2022 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest
Bobby Watson at the 2022 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest (photo: Robert Birnbach)

Cuban keyboardist/composer Omar Sosa and his Quarteto Americanos (with Sheldon Brown on reeds, Mazar Kindelán on bass and Josh Jones on drums) supplied plenty of energy and irresistible rhythms. They could possibly have been featured at the festival’s Latin Tropical Stage, but instead were showcased at the Hammer Theatre Stage. The quartet, Sosa’s first U.S.-based group since the ’90s, retained his signature Afro-Cuban textures, with more jazz orientation provided by Brown’s saxophone playing. The bandleader on several occasions let the other players wail away as he danced in appreciation. Still, there was no substitute for his unbelievable playing, which at times rivaled that of fellow Cuban master pianist Chucho Valdés.

On the big-band front, the 17-piece LMR Orchestra (formerly the Long Meadow Ranch All Star Big Band) featured Tierney Sutton. The mighty conglomerate was conducted by renowned composer/arranger Chris Walden, with Bay Area top players and a sprinkling of L.A. first-call musicians, including saxophonist Tom Scott, trumpeter Wayne Bergeron, and drummer Gary Novak. Their debut album release, Missa Iubileum Aureum: Golden Jubilee Jazz Mass, had actually been performed in its entirety the night prior at San Francisco’s St. Dominic’s Church with Sutton and special guest Kurt Elling.

At SJJSF, LMR blazed away on Walden’s instrumental “River Road Blues.” Behind the scintillating Sutton, who’s known Walden for more than 20 years, they also performed snappy, superbly rendered arrangements of “How Long Has This Been Going On,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” and “Beyond the Sea.”

Another remarkable vocalist at SJJSF was Kim Nalley, whose set was the second to feature numerous astounding trumpet solos from Terell Stafford. Nalley, also a history professor at CSU East Bay, was further supported by Tammy Hall on piano, Michael Zisman on bass and Leon Joyce Jr. on drums. She was full of sass and vitality, enthralling the attendees with Ruth Brown’s bluesy romp “Teardrops from My Eyes,” a jazzy version of the immortal “Try a Little Tenderness,” and a profanity-free interpretation of Les McCann/Eddie Harris’ “Compared to What.” As a bonus, she debuted “To Joy My Freedom,” an original work commissioned by San Jose Jazz’s Jazz Aid Fund and based on the first successful African American workers’ strike after the Civil War.

Coming from vastly different perspectives were female singers Nellie McKay, Nicole Henry, and Sandra Aran. McKay, idiosyncratic and ridiculously talented, performed solo with aw-shucks aplomb; singing, playing piano, ukulele and harmonica, she merrily dashed from ragtime to standards to songs about marriage and even Joan Rivers. In a more contemporary jazz-pop realm, Henry and her Miami-based quartet highlighted tracks from her most recent recording Time to Love Again along with a few pop covers, all possessing charm and impressive phrasing. Mexico-born and Berklee-educated Aran performed with SF-area drummer Brian Andres’ quartet, skillfully serving up Clare Fischer’s “Una Mañana,” Djavan’s ballad “Flor de Lis,” and the bossa/samba “Homem e Mulher.”

Keyon Harrold 2022 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest
Left to right: Andrew Renfroe, Keyon Harrold, and Jonathan Sanders at the 2022 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest (photo: Robert Birnbach)

Oddly, there weren’t any male jazz singers slated for SJJSF 2022. However, bassist Jeff Denson sang an exquisite version of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” with his quartet, which also featured Scott Amendola on drums, Michael Echaniz on piano, and Paul McCandless on soprano sax and bass clarinet. The latter is probably best known for his long associations with pastoral jazz groups Oregon and the Paul Winter Consort.

In addition, the Denson quartet performed a piece from a commission fusing jazz and Chinese classical music, which had originally incorporated McCandless and pipa master Wu Man from Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble (the latter was unfortunately not present this time). Another new composition, “Owls and Crows,” depicted daily intense warring between great horned owls and crows just outside the window of Denson’s band room.

One other male performer raised his voice as the festival drew to a close. Ferguson, Missouri-based multi-genre trumpeter Keyon Harrold—another major name in the ascending-player vanguard—injected into his set a haunting, Radiohead-tinged lullaby, “Stay This Way.” The seemingly impromptu song was, so he explained, derived from a music-therapy class exercise he took in college. Drummer Jonathan Pinson, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, bassist Jonathan Sanders and keyboardist Michael Cartwright eased in to increase the intensity, as Harrold supplemented his vocal with poignant trumpet soloing and encouraged the audience to sing along. Unquestionably, it was a one-of-a-kind ending for the 2022 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. Originally Published

Chris J. Walker

Chris J. Walker is a music journalist based in Los Angeles who has covered the jazz and blues scene all over Southern California, and throughout the rest of California, as much as possible for over 25 years. He, however, is not totally relegated to jazz and blues, and occasionally reviews folk, rock, R&B, funk and world music events as well.