Team-Ups & Supergroups Power San Francisco Jazz Festival

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Glenn Zaleski (left), Melissa Aldana, Philip Dizack, Pablo Menares and Craig Weinrib perform at the San Francisco Jazz Festival on June 13. (Photo: Ronald Davis)

Before the SFJAZZ Center opened in January 2013, SFJAZZ’s flagship programming was its San Francisco Jazz Festival (SFJF), which took place every fall. The SFJF was moved to June after SFJAZZ switched to a more academic schedule, presenting a season’s worth of concerts from September through May.

The 2017 version of the SFJF runs for 12 days and began on June 6, with three concerts within a two-block radius. Burt Bacharach gave a rescheduled performance at the rented Davies Symphony Hall while the dazzling multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier was headlining in-house at the Center’s Robert M. Miner Auditorium

Trumpeter Marquis Hill was also leading his stellar Blacktet at the Center’s Joe Henderson Lounge. By the time Monday morning rolled around, there were shows by 15 artists ranging from the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and composer/pianist Amina Figarova to Herb Alpert & Lani Hall and ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.

For drummer Jack DeJohnette, double bassist Larry Grenadier, keyboardist John Medeski and guitarist John Scofield, there was twice the cause for celebration on June 8: It was the first time that they’d played together since recording Hudson, their debut recording. And it was being released the following day on the Motéma label.

All four musicians live in New York’s Hudson Valley, with three of them already having histories together. DeJohnette and Scofield toured and recorded with organist Larry Goldings as Trio Beyond, while Scofield has done the same with Medeski, Martin & Wood.

Surrounded on three sides by keyboards—a Hammond B-3, a Fender Rhodes and a grand piano—Medeski was stage right with DeJohnette situated diagonally across. Intriguingly, all but Grenadier had vocal microphones.

Holding court at Miner Auditorium, Scofield played an unaccompanied introduction to Jimi Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow” before Medeski, Grenadier and DeJohnette joined in. As he did throughout the night, Medeski was multi-tasking—his right hand playing organ and left hand laying down chords on the heavily effects-processed Rhodes. 

Those mic stands came into play a few songs later, as DeJohnette sang on another Hendrix number, “Castles Made Of Sand.” He sings lead on only one of Hudson’s tracks (“Dirty Ground, which he co-wrote with pianist and fellow trio-mate Bruce Hornsby), so it was nice to hear his half-spoken crooning on a couple of other numbers, with Scofield occasionally adding background vocals. (It was also a treat to hear the rare pairing of organ and double bass.)

Scofield and DeJohnette explained that the inspiration for the repertoire was the Hudson Valley and the music of the 1960s. The encore of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” was the perfect combination of both. And the fact that David Crosby had been on that very same stage several months earlier with Snarky Puppy further tied the sentiment back to the SFJAZZ Center.

Vocalist Lizz Wright was the only act to have two separate shows in Miner Auditorium this SFJF with a Friday night date preceding a rare Saturday mid-afternoon matinee. Opening with a series of songs in tribute to Ella Fitzgerald’s centenary, she and pianist Kenny Banks honored not only the First Lady of Song’s 100th birthday but also her ever-present dignity and resolve.

A medley that included “What Is This Thing Called Love” and “Love You Madly” wholly showcased Wright’s vocal pathos and range. “The Nearness Of You” concluded the mini-set before guitarist Chris Rosser, bass guitarist Dan Lutz and drummer Ivan Edwards emerged for “Seems I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You.”

The daytime was throwing her off, she said, so she wore a bright yellow outfit. (She noted that the color was also relatable to fans of both the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, who recently tussled in the NBA Finals.) Noting that she would likely get locked in the building if she didn’t perform the next song, she dove into her trademark simmering version of “Old Man” by singer-songwriter Neil Young, a former Bay Area resident.

Davis often played both piano and the adjacent organ to great effect—as he did on “New Game,” a song not originally on the setlist, Wright revealed. She called that audible, she said, in honor of Game 5 of the NBA Finals, which would be held across the Bay in Oakland two nights later. While her set started intimately, it crescendoed to rousing songs such as the Toshi Reagon-penned “Freedom” and the gospel standard “Walk With Me, Lord.”

Following its extended opening weekend, the 2017 SFJF still had 13 acts go over 22 more shows. Chris Potter was part of the SFJAZZ ECM Fest in 2015 and partook in another thematic program, a de facto “two tenors” pairing with Melissa Aldana.

Having recorded and toured with her Crash Trio in recent years, Aldana is now leading a quintet. Her band on June 13 featured trumpeter Philip Dizack, pianist Glenn Zaleski, Crash Trio double bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Craig Weinrib.

After performing numbers by the bandleader and Menares, the quintet became a quartet as Dizack left the bandstand. Aldana plunged into an extended a cappella introduction that hinted at “St. Thomas” before settling into a crystalline interpretation of “Spring Can Hang You Up The Most.” A return to original work by Aldana and the quintet closed the first half of the program.

Potter chose four selections from his latest project, The Dreamer Is The Dream, which was released by ECM in late April. Pianist David Virelles, who appeared on the album, was part of a group that included double bassist Ben Street and drummer Dan Weiss.

“Yasodhara” and “Sonic Anomaly,” two Potter originals from the new album, were performed back to back like an intense, extended two-movement work. The saxophonist took a brief break to introduce the band and back-announce the titles before switching to soprano for “Heart In Hand,” another new original. Before the group finished, Weiss gave a mesmerizing master class of a solo in which he seamlessly explored each part of his seven-piece drum kit. DB


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December 2017
Wynton Marsalis
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