SAN FRANCISCO, 22
November 2000 - Once you've huffed and puffed up the steep slopes
of Nob Hill, you need all the spiritual help you can get. Fortunately,
there was a Sunday evening concert in what the 18th annual San
Francisco Jazz Festival dubbed "sacred space" up there in
the Grace Cathedral. It was a breathless occasion.
audience was enthralled with the saxophonists Greg Osby and Joe
Lovano, both of whom played a solo set and were obviously awestruck,
if perhaps a bit too eager to please the landlord. Does "sacred"
necessarily mean whole notes? Serious improvisers always try to play
in "sacred space," even if it's a saloon. Yet the way these
two excellent saxophonists drastically slowed down their usual peppy
styles, it was as though they were thinking something like, it's
Sunday, you're in church, don't bug the preacher, be a good boy. This
sort of Sunday spirituality made you wonder whether on Monday they
would go back to playing in "profane space." You wished for
a dance long before the encore, when they finally lit into a sprightly
duet on Thelonious Monk's "Friday the 13th" - listening to a
musician being a good boy is enjoyable only so long. At some point
even the Lord must wish for some action. But it was an unusual and
satisfying concert and no amount of quibbling can change that.
are presentations of a wide variety of styles more or less all year
long, and the saxophonist Joshua Redman is the newly appointed musical
director of the spring season. Although actually more a string of
concerts than a festival, this autumn's string of whatever you call it
was exceptionally well programmed. It is difficult to focus on one
particular theme over such a wide temporal spread, and the executive
director, Randall Kline, decided to go to the city's strength and
weave his festival into an already rich fabric by taking advantage of
some 20 of the existing fine venues.
Good acoustics are like
good health. You take it for granted when you have it. The sound was
excellent everywhere. The legendary Cecil Taylor had no need for
amplification for his solo concert at the elegant Herbst Theater,
resulting in a more clement Taylor. The 71-year-old pianist's free
improvisations have aged well in general, without any appreciable
decrease in zest. His acoustic spell required deep concentration and
was enthusiastically received.
San Franciscans like to talk
about how they live in a cultured, international city on a level with
Paris. They believe, for instance, that if you have to ask what the
Embarcadero is and how to get there, there must be something wrong
with you. The affluent, clean and modern offices of the San Francisco
Jazz Organization are in the Embarcadero, the giant and expensive
retail and office complex covering several downtown blocks. They are
reminiscent, on a smaller scale, of the offices of New York's Jazz at
Lincoln Center. Who says that jazz is a poor art form?
dignity with which the jeaned and T-shirted musicians presented their
music was a lot deeper than Jazz at Lincoln Center's sartorial dignity
involving neckties and three-piece suits (not that there's anything
wrong with them). They had the poise of creative people happy to be
working a job for which they do not have to change their clothes. The
astonishing mixture of musicianship and creativity in Russell Gunn's
Ethnomusicology, a six-piece band of young men without one star in it,
leaves a lot of hope for the future. They play fast without being
flashy, there are reasons for every note they play, their joy is
evident and infectious, and they display their roots without being
enslaved by them.
An up-and-coming improviser by the name of
Jason Moran has all the sophistication we have come to expect from an
educated young jazz pianist these days, plus a smidgen of off-kilter
experimentation we do not hear enough of. His quirky voicings are out
of Monk and Earl Hines, his stride episodes come from Jaki Byard (his
teacher), and when he spreads his solo lines over three or four
octaves he sounds just like himself. There are many surprises along
the way, including a song by Bjork.
By the way they combined
standards, abstraction and African roots, the Trevor Watts Moire Music
Group pointed the way toward a world music-fusioned future. The
British saxophonist's group consisted of three percussion (including
the talking drum and voice of the Ghanian Paapa J. Mensah) and bass
guitar and Watts, who likes to play in the lower register. His lowdown
melodies meld with the strings and the skins into freshly funky
Lee Konitz lost more than 20 pounds (nine
kilograms) after a double bypass heart operation last spring and he no
longer plays sharp. On the other hand, wearing a white suit on stage
in duo with the pianist Paul Bley, the distinguished alto man looked
very sharp indeed.
Mike Zwerin has been
jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last
twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village
Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz
editor of Culturekiosque.com.