San Jose Jazz Summer Fest Offers Variety of Musical Experiences

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Chris Botti (left), Lee Pearson and Sy Smith perform at the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest, which ran Aug. 11–13. (Photo: Robert Birnbach)

San Jose Jazz’s annual Summer Fest offered patrons the opportunity to have a variety of different festival experiences during its 28th iteration, held Aug. 11–13.

With 10 stages and a wide assortment of genres, one could plan to hear a weekend’s worth of exclusively big bands, Afro-Cuban ensembles or student combos. Set in and around downtown San Jose, Summer Fest’s biggest draws seem to be legacy funk and soul artists. George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic headlined the Sobrato Organization Main Stage on Friday night, and the one-two punch of Maceo Parker and The Whispers closed out the outdoor stage two days later.

But it was two other groups on the main stage that gave a glimpse into San Jose Jazz’s past and present. Trumpeter Chris Botti’s closing set on Saturday evening embraced old and new standards while blending technical facility with crowd-pleasing entertainment. Led by tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, the cross-generational all-star Jazz by 5 quintet had an early afternoon Sobrato stage performance on Sunday followed by an indoor evening set at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation Hammer Theatre Stage. 

Botti has had success in the classical crossover world, in part through PBS broadcasting his Chris Botti in Boston concert special recorded at that city’s Symphony Hall in 2008. He opened with “Gabriel’s Oboe,” which Ennio Morricone composed for the 1986 film The Mission. The piece set a dramatic tone. Later, violinist Caroline Campbell was a force on the front line alongside the bandleader for Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez”—one of Botti’s unspoken nods to Miles Davis.

Other band members then exited, and Botti performed a quartet version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” He fired off a lusty growl during his solo and introduced his pianist, Eldar (aka Eldar Djangirov), after the number concluded.

It turns out Eldar was only a few shows into the current tour, joining a prestigious line of Botti band pianists that has boasted everyone from Billy Childs and Peter Martin to Geoff Keezer and Taylor Eigsti. (Botti guested on this very same standard on Eldar’s 2006 Live At The Blue Note Sony Masterworks album, so there was a nice symmetry in play.)

Another new band member, Michael Olatuja, switched between acoustic bass and bass guitar throughout the night and seemed to energize his comrades, particularly Lee Pearson. The drummer, who had performed with Dr. Lonnie Smith a few hours earlier on the Hammer Theatre Stage, shone during his customary drum solo showcase on “Regrooveable,” the sole Botti original in the setlist.

Fans of r&b enjoyed uptempo versions of “The Look Of Love” (with its customary “A Night In Tunisia” interpolation) and “Let’s Stay Together” with vocalist Sy Smith. For the latter, Botti invited the VIP area patrons to dance on the steps that led up to the stage. He kept Eldar on the bandstand for a trio reading of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which the trumpeter has performed only with guitar in the past. He played his second encore, “My Funny Valentine,” as a duo with his new pianist delving into an intricate yet flowing solo.

Over the years, Botti has carefully cultivated a brand of arena jazz that is based in the tradition but brings in contemporary (and audience-broadening) elements. The repertoire and even some of the banter is mostly standard from show to show. But as the addition of two new band members reminded veteran observers, there’s always room for improvisation and personal expression within the framework. 

Jazz by 5, in turn, was a pleasant reminder of Summer Fests past, when the likes of the late Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, the Brad Mehldau Trio and Dee Dee Bridgewater would grace the main stage. Jackson, trumpeter Randy Brecker, pianist George Cables, double bassist Eddie Gomez and ageless drummer Jimmy Cobb made for a tri-generational and egoless supergroup.

Catching two numbers of the band’s Sunday daytime main stage set, one could hear an inspired version of “Flamenco Sketches” that extended the Davis theme Botti had instigated the night before—albeit with the drummer on the original Kind Of Blue recording on the bandstand. An assured take on Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” (which Brecker said he hadn’t played in some 25 years) was the perfect tonic for a warm afternoon. 

The group began its evening Hammer Theatre show by performing “So What” (commencing with a rather abstract unaccompanied Gomez solo that hid the traditional introduction until the very end) and then “Freddie Freeloader,” leading to speculation that they might be performing all of Kind Of Blue.

Yes, Davis was still in the house, but via “Someday My Prince Will Come,” which Brecker played with a mute. Cobb was on the 1961 Davis album of the same name, Jackson pointed out, before leaving to give Brecker a pathos-filled showcase on “I Can’t Get Started.”

Jackson and Brecker were locked in on an interpretation of “My Shining Hour” that featured an effortless and expansive drum solo by Cobb. It was then Cables’ turn to shine during an elegant solo on “Stella By Starlight.”

Jackson got his own showcase on a quartet version of “My One And Only Love,” which he introduced a cappella before floating atop Cobb’s hypnotizing cymbal playing. Davis was revisited at the end with a spicy variation on “The Theme,” with which the late trumpeter at times also concluded his own live sets.

Festival homecoming: San Jose native and current New York resident Jackie Gage made her second annual triumphant return to Summer Fest. The vocalist had a late Saturday night slot at the Jade Leaf Stage and at one point offered up a cool version of “Return To Paradise.” She said that the late Shirley Horn was her inspiration for it. With Ben Williams playing bass guitar in her accompanying piano trio, it perfectly mirrored the late Charles Ables’ instrument of choice in Horn’s “classic” three-piece unit. DB


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October 2017
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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