Regional, International Talent Meet at San Jose Jazz Summer Fest

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It was still a comfortable 80 degrees on an early August evening when the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest kicked off, its focus the intermingling of international and regional players, many of them stretching the boundaries of jazz, from afrobeat to tango and funk.

Sacramento’s modern fusion artists Mino Yanci opened the festival’s main stage, situated in Downtown San Jose’s Cesar Chavez Plaza, as the crowd thickened with lawn chairs brought by festival-goers settling in for a night of top-flight funk and r&b. Seventies hitmakers Con Funk Shun from the North Bay’s Vallejo, and Grammy-winning vocalist Lalah Hathaway, a stylistic hybridizer in the tradition of her father Donny, competed for attention with the small stage at the far end of the park, where newcomer Jessica La Rel held her own in the vocal department.

The festival spilled over from its outdoor main and showcase stages into nearby clubs, and hotel ballrooms and lounges, creating a cohesive and intimate gathering.

On its second tour of the States, Buenos Aires’ Tango Jazz Quartet, led by saxophonist Gustavo Firmenich, packed the house at local club Cafe Stritch for the early evening program during which pianist Horacio Acosta stunned the mostly-middle aged crowd.

Not far from the main stage and the club crawl, tucked inside a ballroom at the Fairmont Hotel, Pascal Bokar Afro Blue Grazz Band also wowed the capacity crowd, encouraging dancing from the floor (and got it). The composer/guitarist/educator’s take on the African roots of jazz and Delta blues was unique in its execution, thanks to the large band, a revue so mighty, the small stage barely could contain its energy, not to mention its personnel.

Sounding like a great convergence of The Love Unlimited Orchestra and Fela Kuti’s Egypt 80, Bokar was born in France, raised in Mali and Sengal and currently lives in the Bay Area. A charismatic guitarist and bandleader, he moved his players through a relentless groove, fed by drums, congas, two keyboards and—most surprising and delightfully—fiddle and banjo. Vocalists and dancers were featured amid a celebratory spirit, drawing from multiple traditional musics.

Not dissimilar in its cross-musical and generational ensemble format and appeal was Eddie Gale and his Inner Peace Orchestra. Beloved in the Bay Area, the trumpeter and bandleader has worked through the decades, bringing players into his band and pushing them toward the international spotlight. Destiny Muhammad, a harpist and composer, was at stage left. But with the fully assembled band assisting her on “African Sunshine,” included on the 50th anniversary edition of Gale’s watershed 1968 recording, Ghetto Music, the crowd’s attention was fixed. While certainly inspired by Alice Coltrane, Muhammad brings her own unique touch to the strings, as well as a contemporary melodic style that is exacting, whether she is working solo or accompanied. Valeri Mih on piano, Sandy Poindexter on violin and vocalist Carolyn Jones were particularly in tune with Muhammad and Gale throughout the set.

As the weekend unfolded, longtime local heroes and others who call the Bay Area home—Booker T. Jones, Kool & The Gang, Lydia Pense & Cold Blood—represented the region’s contingent from Sacramento to the Central Valley. While Northern Cal might not always get its due in modern music, as far as innovation and flair goes, the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest caught the spirit this year. DB



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February 2019
Terri Lyne Carrington
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