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Live Review: 2019 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest

For its 30th go-round, this California confab let the music do the celebrating

Elio Villafranca at the 2019 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest
Elio Villafranca at the 2019 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest (photo: Robert Birnbach)

Tech-subjugated San Jose, main hub of Silicon Valley, has always been somewhat iconoclastic. Its Jazz Summer Fest—anchored around downtown Plaza de Cesar Chavez Park, the refined Fairmont Hotel, and numerous palatable restaurants—started in 1990 as a two-day (one fusion and one mainstream) grass-roots event. That makes this year’s installment the 30th, a milestone you’d think someone would want to make a big deal about. But this is San Jose, and so it was barely mentioned, although there was a row of posters by the mainstage exit spotlighting major moments from each past year in chronological order, thus forming a basic narrative for the festival’s history.

Now well-established and fully operational for three days (August 9-11), the 2019 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest featured a plentiful roster of jazz artists in 12 different venues, yet notably those artists never dominated the main outdoor stage in the park. Out of 11 marquee performers that included funk, gospel, salsa, and classic R&B, only three were jazz. Gregory Porter put on a crowd-pleasing but abbreviated set; Dianne Reeves overflowed with exhilarating vocalese, mainstream, Brazilian explorations, and expressive ballads; and Carl Allen’s Art Blakey Centennial Project was a hard-bop party with stirring solos and band interactions.

Carl Allen at the 2019 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest
Carl Allen at the 2019 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest (photo: Robert Birnbach)

Still, hardcore jazz enthusiasts didn’t seem to mind not being outside that much—mainly because they had their pick of five indoor venues primarily dedicated to jazz, all of which helped them avoid the hot sun and cooling evening temperatures. At the same time, listeners with more eclectic tastes had a wide array of music to choose from on the remaining outdoor stages.

The most intelligent, provocative, and engaging set closed the festival at the Hammer Theatre Stage. Pianist/composer/bandleader Elio Villafranca helmed a daring ensemble overflowing with all-stars: saxophonists Vincent Herring and Greg Tardy, trumpeter Freddie Hendrix, trombonist/conch-shell player Steve Turre, drummer Lewis Nash, and percussionist Arturo Stable. They rendered intriguing and challenging compositions from Villafranca’s Grammy-nominated two-disc recording Cinque. It musically chronicled Joseph Cinque, who in 1839 instigated a successful slave revolt on the ship La Amistad, bound for Cuba from what is now Sierra Leone.

Earlier on the same stage, savvy veteran pianist Monty Alexander led his dynamic Harlem-Kingston Express double trio (two drummers, two bassist, and one guitarist), who captivated the audience with an astonishing merging of jazz, reggae, and calypso. Gracious singer Roberta Gambarini emphasized both tasteful standards and her own superb scatting while honoring Nat King Cole, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Dave and Iola Brubeck, and her recently departed colleague Roy Hargrove.

Lucy Woodward and Charlie Hunter at the 2019 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest
Lucy Woodward (left) and Charlie Hunter at the 2019 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest (photo: Robert Birnbach)

At the same venue but working from a lighter standpoint, Fred Hersch performed solo renditions of standards, originals, and classical pieces that showcased his piano mastery. Latin Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Ivan Lins’ band showcased his funkily romantic Brazilian creations to a very appreciative audience, who sometimes sang along. In a class by themselves, guitarist/bassist Charlie Hunter and singer Lucy Woodward offered a range of classic and ’80s rock, vintage blues, and funk from their new record Music!Music!Music! Hunter, renowned for his virtuoso eight-string guitar playing, has to be witnessed live to be fully appreciated. Add Woodward’s singing (reminiscent of soul-rocking SF Bay Area singer Lydia Pense, as well as Bonnie Raitt and Beth Hart) and Doug Marlow’s drumming, and you’ve got a powerful force.

A major feature of this festival is the spotlighting of homegrown talent, who are sometimes also nationally and internationally renowned artists. Some teamed with other prominent musicians and singers to produce extraordinary one-of-a-kind performances. For example, powerhouse vocalist Kim Nalley rocked the house with vintage blues, provocative jazz singing, and the considerable aid of lauded saxophonist James Carter, who contributed signature squeaking and squawking touches. Emerging singer Tiffany Austin teamed up with the Marcus Shelby Orchestra for appealing standards. Drummer Sylvia Cuenca, a longtime New York resident who studied jazz in San Jose, was spotlighted with her quartet and alto saxophonist Jon Gordon. And another drummer, Akira Tana from San Francisco, showcased the Otonowa Project, which made unique use in a jazz context of the group members’ shared Japanese ancestry.

James Carter at the 2019 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest
James Carter at the 2019 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest (photo: Robert Birnbach)

Spawned via San Jose Jazz’s Summer Jazz Camp and conceived by drummer Wally Schnalle, the SJZ Collective Plays Mingus—made up of the camp’s instructors—are a festival fixture. Putting a modern edge on Mingus’ compositions, they jammed away intensely, showcasing organist Brian Ho, saxophonist Oscar Pangilinan, bassist Saúl Sierra, guitarist Hristo Vitchev, trumpeter John L. Worley, Jr., and Schnalle. Also progressing was Jackie Gage, a San Jose native presently cutting her teeth in New York. To a packed house she presented a soulful and heartfelt tribute to Nancy Wilson.

Connie Han, based in L.A. and not exactly homegrown, worked with her regular trio (Bill Wysaske on drums and Ivan Taylor on bass) to highlight her dazzling playing on compositions from her neo-bop debut CD Crime Zone. Quickly gaining notoriety as a great player, pianist Emmet Cohen did double duty, sitting in first with octogenarian drum master Albert “Tootie” Heath and later with vintage-styled singer Veronica Swift.

Aki Kumar at the 2019 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest
Aki Kumar at the 2019 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest (photo: Robert Birnbach)

Not to be overlooked was a variety of entertaining musicians on the outside blues stage. Singer, dancer, and multi-instrumentalist Gunhild Carling dazzled the crowd with her many talents and was backed by a band of mostly siblings (drums, tuba/trombone, and clarinet/vocals) for New Orleans trad tunes. Aki Kumar, dubbed “The Only Bombay Blues Man,” was born in India and raised in San Jose. He gave up studying software engineering to find his calling—a bold melding of Chicago blues and Bollywood pop that astonished the audience.

Guitarist and singer Quinn DeVeaux regularly does shows in the Bay Area and presented a laid-back set of Delta blues and gospel. On the other hand, vocalist ValLimar Jansen from Southern California leaned heavily toward gospel and took the audience to church. And singer/trumpeter Shamarr Allen and the Underdawgs from New Orleans’ Ninth Ward were all about partying and getting the audience to dance.

After 30 years, the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest is well past being a newbie festival, and seems destined to become even bigger and better.

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.