San José Jazz Winter Fest Showcases Wave of Rising Stars

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Shayna Steele performs Feb. 16 at Cafe Stritch in San José, California, during San José Jazz Winter Fest.

(Photo: Mark Anenberg)

For the 2020 edition of San José Jazz Winter Fest, which wrapped on Feb. 29, a new wave of rising stars left a considerable impression, as did five-string bass guitarists and powerhouse drummers.

For eight years, San José Jazz has been presenting the annual event, a dynamic counterpart to its signature three-day Summer Fest, and it’s developed a reputation for programming an impressive array of artists on the verge of breaking through to broader audiences.

Vocalist Shayna Steele brought her quintet—replete with husband David Cook on piano—to Cafe Stritch on Feb. 16 to conclude WF’s opening weekend. Both spouses have ties to the pop world: Steele as a live backing vocalist for Rihanna and Bette Midler, and Cook as Taylor Swift’s pianist/music director.

Switching between originals, r&b favorites and jazz standards, Steele’s set was a study in contrasts and dynamics. Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” was transformed from an intimate anthem at its beginning to a near-whispered prayer. “Gone Under,” originally Steele’s collaboration with Snarky Puppy, got the seated crowd gyrating in their chairs.

Other fest highlights included pianist Aaron Goldberg’s sleek trio with bassist Matt Penman and fiery drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. closing out its set at Stritch on Feb. 19 with an inspired interpretation of “Poinciana.”

The Lique is a youthful five-piece hip-hop unit whose members met while studying in the UNLV jazz program. The quintet headlined the quirky midtown San José comic book shop/performance space The Art Boutiki on Feb. 20 and notably boasted one of the younger—and most enthused—WF crowds.

With an MC, electric guitar, keyboards, five-string electric bass and drums, The Lique was reminiscent of The Roots in both attitude and instrumental prowess. With lively originals like “Batman” and “Billie’s Holiday,” and fun covers like Naughty By Nature’s “Hip Hop Hurray,” the band is a testament to the many creative directions a formal music education can facilitate. Opening act Slimthic energized the weeknight crowd and cemented this idea.

Drummer Matt Wilson’s quintet (with Martin Wind on acoustic five-string bass guitar) brought some much-appreciated Northern California color to the bandstand; and local baritone saxophonist Aaron Lington and pianist Jon Dryden read some Carl Sandberg poetry as part of the bandleader’s “Honey and Salt” program at the Hammer Theatre on Feb. 21.

The Feb. 29 closing night show at The Art Boutiki initially seemed like an odd fit for the festival: Making its Bay Area debut, Black String is a Korean quartet that combines rock ’n’ roll and traditional instruments that mixed amplified acoustic and electric gear while playing originals, covers and Korean folk songs. Percussionist/vocalist Min Wang Hwang mainly played a combination of floor toms and cymbals during the group’s originals, giving those pieces a militaristic flare. Other times, he’d utilize the Korean janggu hand drum for a tauter sound.

Geomungo (Korean zither) player Yoon Jeong Ho and electric guitarist/electronics manipulator Jean Oh offered an appropriately dramatic duo reading of Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For A Film)”—a song popularized in jazz circles by the first classic Brad Mehldau trio. Oh seemed to quote Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” during his solo on the Black String composition “Seven Beats,” and the band’s overall sound and spirit would have been at home in the ’70s-era fusion.

It all was, in the end, a vibrant reminder of the fresh music that audiences have been discovering at San José Jazz Winter Fest since 2013. DB