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Golden Gate Jazz

By Mike Zwerin

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.

The 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.

There 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?

The 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 collectivity.

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.

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