Healdsburg Fest Showcases Diasporic Tributaries to Mainstem Jazz

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Soul-jazz tenor icon Houston Person with drummer Sylvia Cuenca at this year’s Healdsburg Jazz Festival.

(Photo: John Nelson)

“All killer, no filler” is a good descriptor for Healdsburg Jazz Festival’s 26th anniversary edition, which transpired June 15–23 at various venues in the Sonoma Valley town of Healdsburg, California, population 11,340, home to two Michelin-star restaurants, numerous vineyards and an affluent local donor base with surplus disposable income sourced, in large part, from present or former ties to Big Tech. Artistic Director Marcus Shelby, the protean San Francisco/Oakland/Berkeley-based bandleader-bassist-composer, curated a compelling pan-generational program with artists ranging from 20-something to 80-something, showcasing the various diasporic tributaries of the mainstem jazz river circa 2024.

On day one of this year’s fest, an equivalently multigenerational audience of several hundred witnessed a free Saturday afternoon triple-bill in Healdsburg’s public square. First up was Portland-based pianist Darrell Grant’s MJ New Quartet. Constant counterpoint between the leader and fluent Portland vibraphonist Mike Horsfell, and nuanced MJQ-like swinging by Shelby and drummer Cecil Brooks III (a recent California transplant), marked Grant’s programmatic originals — such as “Vanport,” from his recently dropped Our Mr. Jackson — and percolating arrangements of chestnuts like Duke Ellington’s “Drop Me Off In Harlem” and Horace Silver’s “Juicy Lucy” on which Grant concertized, refracting first Oscar Peterson and then Wynton Kelly into his own sophisticated argot.

Next was Person to Person, a quintet joining 61-year-old altoist Eric Person and 89-year-old soul tenor icon Houston Person. Shelby triangulated another impeccable rhythm section, with pianist Adam Klipple and drummer Sylvia Cuenca, making the first of many appearances during the week. The saxophonists’ conversational affinity came through on Illinois Jacquet’s seductive “Black Velvet,” Benny Carter’s samba “Only Trust Your Heart” and Shirley Scott’s sax-battle-friendly “Blues Everywhere.” The younger Person showcased bebop bona fides on “What Is This Thing Called Love,” soaring atop Cuenca’s crisp beats. The elder Person belied his somewhat frail appearance with his still-declarative, vocalized sonic signature on “Try A Little Tenderness,” a medium blues called “Why Not” and Johnny Mandel’s “The Way We Were.” Klipple, another recent New York transplant, navigated Cedar Walton/Red Garland/Wynton Kelly/Bud Powell vocabulary with aplomb and wit, juxtaposing fleet single-note lines, block chords, parallel octaves and many apropos quotes within the flow.

Another grandmaster, trombonist-shellman Steve Turre, 75, assembled a strong sextet with tenor saxophonist (and SNL-bandmate) Ron Blake, trumpeter Wallace Roney Jr., pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Dishan Harper (Winard Harper’s nephew) and drummer Orion Turre (his son) to play mostly repertoire from the 2022 album Generations. The meticulously arranged, well-rehearsed, rhythmically diverse set upheld J.J. Johnson’s comment, “Steve Turre is in complete command and control of Steve Turre,” from a long-ago liner note. The timeline stretched from Lawrence Brown (“Dinner With Duke”) to reggae (“Don D”) to late 20th century modern (“Planting The Ceed”); Turre concluded a satisfying day with his sui generis conch shells concept on “All Blues.”

Sunday brushfires in the northeast foothills placed a literal and figurative cloud over Samara Joy’s concert before about 1,200 witnesses at Kendall Vineyards, 10 miles down the road in Santa Rosa. Serendipitously, the air cleared by hit time, allowing the 24-year-old double Grammy winner and her four-horn septet of generational contemporaries to present a spectacular 11-tune set of primarily new compositions and arrangements from her forthcoming fall release on Verve. Joy opened with an aria-like declamation of her lyrics to Charles Mingus’ “Reincarnation Of A Lovebird,” arranged by tenor saxophonist Kendrick McCallister, concluding the bravura overture with descending arpeggios that landed squarely on opening notes of the band’s entrance, as though Sarah Vaughan was singing on a 1960 Mingus date instead of Honey Gordon. McCallister, trumpeter Jason Charos, alto saxophonist Dave Mason and trombonist Donavan Austin exchanged solos, morphing into a free section, then setting up Joy’s forte declamation over Jacob Smith’s drum vamp. (Smith, Charos, Mason, Rohrer attended Frost School of Music; Joy, McCallister and Austin are SUNY-Purchase alums.)

Joy again melded with the ensemble on Charos’ samba-swing arrangement of “You Stepped Out Of A Dream.” Connor Rohrer opened with a piano solo, followed by a twisting soli by the horns, then Charos’ lyric solo, and Joy’s rich contralto vocalese. Mason’s fingerpopping chart of Sammy Cahn’s “Day By Day” (Joy culled it from Carmen McRae’s 1967 reading on Portrait Of Carmen) and tart solo set up the leader’s gorgeous vocalese and McCallister’s concise chorus; Joy’s closing restatement was a master class in swing phrasing. Master class in balladry followed as she interpreted her lyrics to Barry Harris’ bittersweet, Strayhorn-esque “Now And Then (In Remembrance),” counterstated by arranger McCallister’s persuasive boudoir tenor; she put similar mojo on Austin’s sophisticated art song “A Fool In Love (Is Called A Clown),” which referenced J.J. Johnson’s 1960s arranging. On the climactic “Chega de Saudade”/“No More Blues”), by Jobim, arranged by Charos, Joy opened with the Portuguese lyrics, voice-as-instrumented with Charos and Austin on a samba section that metrically modulated into an Afro-Cuban groove, and concluded with the English lyrics, before scatting with Ella Fitzgerald-meets-Sarah Vaghan intonation. Commendably, Joy is leveraging her meteoric rise in popularity as a platform to address the tradition with freshness on its own terms of engagement, individuating herself from the pack in the process.

On Monday, the Raven Theater, a century-old structure by the Plaza, hosted a screening of Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums, a layered feature-length documentary about the 59-year-old Cuban pianist-composer-conceptualist. There followed a balls-out, primarily improvised, 130-minute concert by Sosa’s Quarteto, with musicians he’s played with since arriving in San Francisco from Cuba almost 30 years ago. Operating with cues and sketchy frameworks, the personnel — individualistic drumset wizard Josh Jones, multi-saxophonist and woodwind player Sheldon Brown and bassist Ernesto Mazar Kindelán — consistently generated fresh ideas, spurring Sosa to stretch out on acoustic piano more than I’ve ever seen him do.

On Wednesday, Adam Theis’ Jazz Mafia: New Directions in Brass embodied the polyglot spirit animating much creative music in the Bay Area. It’s one of the dozen or so bands led by the 50-year-old trombonist, whose musical production mirrors generation-older Bay Area emigres Peter Apfelbaum’s and Steven Bernstein’s celebration and elaboration of the trans-genre attitude postulated during the ’80s and ’90s by Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy and Don Cherry’s MultiKulti groups, and the Dirty Dozen’s extensions of New Orleans parade band polyphony. The band — contrasting trumpeters Mike Olmos and Ross Eustis, formidable tubist Jonathan Seiberlich, tenor saxophonist Thomas Occhuitto and drummer Henry Plumb — operated at high levels of execution and creativity.

The final four days transpired at Bacchus Landing, a Tuscan-themed campus where eight smallish wine producers occupy spaces surrounding a well-proportioned piazza. Thursday night featured a two-part show by Shelby’s well-drilled big band. The first half comprised several less-traveled Ellingtons (“Black Beauty,” “Lady Mac,” “Amitra’s Dance”) and a few hits (“Mood Indigo,” sung by Shelby’s daughter, and Gerald Wilson’s “Perdido” arrangement), and several blues numbers from Shelby’s “Black Ball” Suite refracting styles associated with Chicago, Kansas City, New York and Pittsburgh, home to important franchises in the Negro Leagues, a Shelby obsession. Then they code-switched, joining singer Jazzmeia Horn and tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley (a long-standing Bay Area hero) on six Horn-penned charts. Completely in control of her materials, the 2013 Sarah Vaughan Award and 2015 Thelonious Monk Award winner represented her 2021 big band release Dear Love. After her “should I or should I not?” lyric to Lafayette Harris’ “He Could Be Perfect,” she referenced Atomic era Basie on an anthemic “He’s My Guy” (Don Raye’s Sarah Vaughan-Clifford Brown vehicle) and “Li’l Darlin’”-style slow-drag erotic on her “baby-making” original “Let Us (Take Our Time).” She nodded to Betty Carter on a crisp “Lover Come Back To Me,” first the lyric, then an extended scat construction. The operatic “Nia” featured Phil Vieux’s keening alto saxophone solo; the concluding “Strive (To Be),” an anthemic rumba, included with a ferocious Cuenca solo that fulfilled Horn’s soundcheck instruction to refract elements of Brian Blade, Art Blakey and Jeff Watts into her own conception.

Before DownBeat turned into a pumpkin, they stopped at Elephant in the Room, a roadhouse down the road, to hear four tunes by trombonist-vocalist Natalie Cressman and guitarist-vocalist Ian Faquini, the inspired, Brazil-centric husband-wife duo who reside in the Bay Area. Cressman is a truly lyric improviser, and her sotto voce singing was sublime, nuanced, idiomatically precise.

George Cables, Billy Hart, Eddie Henderson and Craig Handy of the Cookers, Friday night’s opening band, have deep Bay Area ties — in fact, the group performed its first-ever concert at Healdsburg in 2007. Their discursive set featured three pieces by pianist Cables, in fine form throughout, and Cecil McBee’s open-ended “Peacemaker,” highlighted by altoist Donald Harrison’s efflorescent, Bird-to-the-future solo. Hart, 83, projected unfailing energy and thematic focus throughout the set, constructing a solo on Cables’ “Double Or Nothing” that encapsulated drum lineage from Sid Catlett to Marcus Gilmore.

For part two, Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah presented a stalward group with newbies Morgan Guerin on keyboards and electric saxophone and Cecil Alexander on guitar, and veteran bandmates Elé Howell on drumset and Weedie Braimah, the magnificent djembefola, whose rhythmic brew of Ghanaian-sourced West African and New Orleans beats illuminates the leader’s trans-African imperatives. Adjuah opened with a Black Indian chant, self-accompanying on Adjuahbow, a hybrid, amplified ngoni-kora. Fireworks ensued when Donald “Big Chief” Harrison, Adjuah’s uncle and mentor, took the stage, again Bird-dancing on alto with the surging drums. After a few songs showcasing Adjuah’s uplifted, trademarked Siren trumpet, Harrison returned to sing the iconic Black Indian chant “Iko–Hu Na Ney” in dialogue with Braimah’s thunderous, deep-tuned congas and Adjuah’s gleeful tambourine.

On a broiling Saturday afternoon, the 150-year-old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church hosted an Ellington-themed concert. It opened with saxophonist Kristen Strom, a wonderfully melodic changes player whose far-ranging set spanned pieces by Ellington, Geri Allen, Abbey Lincoln, Paul McCartney, George Gershwin, Harry Warren and Al Cohn. Her bold tenor saxophone tone impressed this listener as a hybrid of Cohn’s melodicism and Stanley Turrentine’s inspired soul tenor energy. There followed an Ellington program by Oakland vocalist Tiffany Austin, who was, of necessity, deferential to the spirited Healdsburg Choir. Festival poet laureate Enid Pickett’s reading of her hip poem “Sir Duke’s Alphabet,” a narrative pastiche of cleverly stitched together titles, was a highlight.

It was still hot and cloudless a few hours later at Bacchus Landing, as harpist Brandee Younger and her cohesive trio (with Rashaan Carter, bass; Allen Mednard, drums) referenced Alice Coltrane, Dorothy Ashby, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye on an erudite suite of beautiful melodies and cool rhythms. As the sun descended and the temperature fell, New Orleans diasporic beat refractions again entered the mix via Crescent City drum grandmaster Herlin Riley — and guitar shaman Bill Frisell — in Oakland native Ambrose Akinmusire’s trio. On Owl Song, Akinmusire’s 2023 Nonesuch release with this trio, Riley sits low in the mix. Here, he asserted himself on drumkit configured with bongos and tambourine, conjuring several long, thematic solos with a drum choir quality, embodying the rigorous rhythmic-design sensibility of Max Roach or Ed Blackwell with homegrown vocabulary. Frisell responded synchronously to Riley’s beats, eliciting a kalimba-like sound during one passage, navigating the bass register during another. Akinmusire found ample space for self-expression, circular breathing on a culminating soliloquy as Riley tone-painted the cymbals to Frisell’s complementary strumming.

Later, Cuenca led a world-class trio (with Essiet Okun Essiet on bass and Joe Gilman on piano) in the boomy lobby of the Healdsburg Hotel, playing inspired versions of, among other songs, Wayne Shorter’s “United” and “Hammerhead” and Herbie Hancock’s “Play Me A Bedtime Story,” before launching a jam session. Phil Vieux, who had not warmed up, emulated Charlie Parker’s Live At Birdland–1950 treatment of “Ornithology” on baritone sax at breakneck speed, à la Pepper Adams or Gary Smulyan. Vieux flubbed only a couple of notes the first time through; by his second solo, he’d nailed it.

The week culminated with Berkeley native Joshua Redman’s mid-20s quartet (with Paul Cornish, piano; Philip Norris, bass; Nazir Ebo, drums) and expressive vocalist Gabrielle Cavassa, playing repertoire from Redman’s 2023 Blue Note debut Where Are We, augmented by a few additions to the album’s geographically oriented program. On the first three tunes (“Chicago Blues,” a mashup of Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” and Jimmy Rushing’s “Goin’ To Chicago Blues”; Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets Of Philadelphia” and the Eagles’ “Hotel California”), Redman’s tenor solos followed a similar pianissimo to forte arc, in contrast to Cavassa’s luminous, conversational diction and phrasing. He paid more attention to varying texture and pace on Betty Carter’s “New England” and on a solo meditation on his original composition and lyric “After Minneapolis (face toward morning)” — crashing piano chords spurred a torrential solo at a tippin’ tempo. As always, Redman played with deep harmonic logic, always keeping a pocket, making even his most abstruse formulations accessible to all. The encore was “Fine And Mellow,” a lovely vehicle for Cavassa; Bay Area native Taylor Eigsti, who’d played an afternoon duo concert with Lisa Fischer and some dancers, shared the piano bench with Cornish and played the deep blues.

Excellent sound and exemplary production values marked the entirety of this boutique festival, matching the intelligence, competence and work ethic characteristic of the area’s culture. Kudos to Shelby and Executive Director Gayle Sullivan (proprietor of a peach farm that grew a variant Alice Waters once chose for a hypothetical last meal) for navigating the complex logistics and inevitable bumps in the road, not letting anyone see them sweat. DB



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