San Francisco Boogie-Woogie Fest Celebrates Pianistic Flair

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Bob Seeley (seen here at the 2014 SF International Boogie Woogie Festival)

(Photo: Courtesy sfboogiewoogiefestival.com)

Boogie-woogie is an inherently jubilant musical genre—even its very name can bring a giggle to your lips. So the SF International Boogie Woogie Festival (SFIBWF), held at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco on Nov. 13, was a predictably celebratory success.

The communal feeling that emanated throughout the afternoon and into the evening was welcome at the end of an emotionally draining post-election week. That mood was brought into focus by the familiar voice of event MC Kathleen Lawton, who is the announcer for local public radio station KCSM’s Friday night “Crazy ’Bout The Blues” program.

Lawton helpfully gave a brief introduction for each of the festival’s participants. She noted that the “international” nature of the event was well-represented by Carl Sonny Leyland (who was born in and raised on England’s southern coast); Lluís Coloma (a native of Barcelona); and Silvan Zingg, “The Boogie Woogie Ambassador from Switzerland.”

Wendy DeWitt, who fostered a love of boogie-woogie while still a youth in Sonoma County and who was also one of the producers of the SFIBWF, represented Northern California. Boogie Woogie royalty was in the house, too, in the form of 88-year old Bob Seeley, who was a prot&eacutegé of Meade Lux Lewis.

The bandstand was set up with interlocking Yamaha grand pianos in the center and a drum kit at stage left. The large multi-media screen above the Center Terrace showed live video of the piano action—a rarity at the Center’s Miner Auditorium. This gave most audience members of a view of the magnificent and frequently furious keyboarding that was taking place at one or both sides of the stage.

Each artist was allotted a three-song set, though Seeley stretched his out to four. DeWitt was the first performer, appropriately, and was accompanied by Kirk Harwood, her regular drummer.

A powerful voice is part of DeWitt’s musical arsenal, and her singing was particularly notable on her interpretation of “That Lucky Old Sun” and an uptempo version of “Summertime” (both featuring tenor saxophonist Nancy Wright). The crowd was clapping along to the latter, during which she may have dropped in a couple of measures from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight Of The Bumblebee.”

Carl Sonny Leyland is both a charmer and a throwback storyteller, à la Garrison Keillor, and pointed out boogie-woogie’s ties to the blues before presenting a standard, “(Back Home Again In) Indiana.”

Playing instrumentally and without accompaniment, he showcased his elegant style before being joined by Harwood, Wright and second tenor saxophonist Gordon “Sax” Beadle. Leyland’s singing style (heard on the last two songs) is as warm as his playing, and he interacted with all three musicians with ease.

A classically trained pianist who loved Jerry Lee Lewis, Coloma is a self-taught boogie-woogie practitioner who incrementally made the transition away from the conservatory world.

That concerto-ready technique popped up throughout his crowd-pleasing set of three originals, including “Flamenco Boogie” and “Chromatic Boogie.” During the latter, he made successive off the cuff quotes of “If I Were A Rich Man” from the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof and the main title themes to The Woody Woodpecker Show, The Simpsons and Star Wars.

A link to boogie-woogie history, Seeley shared how he met his idol Lux Lewis early on while living near Detroit. (Tying the genre back to the venue, he pointed out that that the Blue Note label’s first release featured recordings by boogie-woogie kings Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons.) Seeley delivered on classics such as “Chicago Flyer” and his own “Seeley’s Boogie” while displaying an avuncular charm throughout.

With the looks and wardrobe of a Euro pop star or a classical crossover hero, Silvan Zingg closed the main set with pianistic flare. He countered typical festival expectations by starting with a touching slow blues number. Later, he had the house mimic the sound of train by chanting “Chhh-chhh-chhh-chhh” to terrific, full stereo effect. With admirable left hand precision, he also brought a palatable energy to a surprisingly thrilling take on “All Of Me.”

An extended encore followed the intermission, with dueling pianos and then two grand finale rounds. Coloma was joined by DeWitt and then Leyland (for a version of “Avalon”) and finally Seeley and Harwood for a romp through “Sixth Avenue Express.” Those two remained as Zingg switched with Coloma for an extemporaneous number in the key of G.

For the grand finales (the initial one plus a proper encore), all five pianists rotated between the two pianos for extended jam sessions. Sometimes one would play with just a single hand on the upper treble or lower bass portion of the piano, and towards the end Seeley unexpectedly went into a comical, PG-rated striptease. Before starting the performance, DeWitt explained that the purpose of the SFIBWF was “to turn people onto boogie-woogie.” Judging from the post-concert audience buzz that mission was certainly accomplishe



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