The 24th annual SF Jazz Festival begins this Friday, Oct. 20 with tenor saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins and continues for another 31 events through the Nov. 12 concert of Latin percussion great John Santos and the Machete Ensemble. This will be the most concentrated amount of great jazz available in the Bay Area all year.
The performances are matched to beautiful locations like the neo-classical Palace of the Legion of Honor’s Florence Gould Theatre, the art deco Palace of Fine Arts, the splendiferous Great American Music Hall, and Herbst Theatre with its magnificent autumnal (thus Herbst) murals by Sir Frank Brangwyn.
Besides straight ahead musical performances that range through urban blues, swing, bebop, hard bop, funk, fusion, avant-garde, nuevo tango, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, Lusitanian fado, Indian, Mongolian throat-singing, African, Gypsy and Latin, this year there will also be Betty Boop cartoons, pre-concert talks like the classical folks do, and a jazz brunch cruise on the Bay.
Not only is this year’s festival global in its dimensions, interestingly, about a third of the events feature women vocalists, instrumentalists and big bands as headliners. The following programs are just the top picks from a consistently great lineup:
Without a doubt, the hottest ticket of the Festival has got to be the kick-off concert on Friday, Oct. 20, 8 p.m. at the Masonic Center, with jazz saxophonist extraordinaire Sonny Rollins. While still a teenager, Rollins was playing in New York with bop pioneers Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Miles Davis. By the early Fifties, in a group with Max Roach, Clifford Brown and Richie Powell, he was ushering in the hard bop era. From 1959-61 he retired from music spending a large part of that time woodshedding on the Williamsburg Bridge.
Since then, he has recorded an enormous amount of great music, yet often seems stymied in studio settings. In live concert performances, though, his ability to allow free reign to his improvisatory skills really shines. At 76, his physical and imaginative strength are undiminished. Whether he plays a standard like Dietz and Schwartz’ I See Your Face before Me, one of his classic hard bop originals like Oleo or one of his infectious calypsos like Don’t Stop the Carnival, he delights everyone with his swinging ability to vary tunes through subtle accentual shifts, harmonic genius and romantic lyricism.
Last year saw the death of jazz bass great Percy Heath, but his brothers, drummer Tootie Heath and saxophonist Jimmy Heath, will celebrate Jimmy’s 80th birthday in a concert on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 7:30 p.m. at Herbst Theatre. The Heath brothers grew up in Philadelphia where they were high school friends of John Coltrane and Benny Golson.
They were part of that generation of African-American jazz musicians from northern industrial centers who created hard bop. Jimmy started on alto, but soon picked up the tenor, soprano and flute. His original compositions, like CTA and Gingerbread Boy, have become jazz standards. Albert “Tootie” Heath is simply one of the greatest and most sensitive drummers in the history of jazz. Together the Heath brothers have recorded with almost every important jazz musician on a combined 900 albums. Young trumpet star Jeremy Pelt will join their fraternity for this performance.
Pianist/composer Andrew Hill, who performs on Sunday, Oct. 29, 7 p.m. at Herbst Theatre, with his Anglo-American Quintet, represents the generation of jazz players who straddled the period of bop and free jazz. As a teenager in Chicago in the early Fifties, he was playing on dates with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. By his early twenties, he was working with Roland Kirk and Eric Dolphy. For this gig, he returns to material from his classic 1964 Blue Note album, Point of Departure. Also on the bill is six-string guitarist Nels Cline and his group playing fresh interpretations of Hill’s compelling compositions.
The organ is the star on Friday, Nov. 3, with shows at 8 and 10:30 p.m. at the Great American Music Hall. Dr. Lonnie Liston Smith, joined by James Brown trombone alum Fred Wesley, kicks things off followed by young reed giant James Carter and his organ trio. Smith had a lot of success in the soul/funk/jazz world with his Cosmic Echoes group.
Wesley takes in a lot of territory having not only worked with James Brown and George Clinton’s Funkadelic group, but replaced Al Grey with Count Basie. Carter can play anything from Djangoesque swing to screaming free jazz, but the organ format should bring out his nasty funky side.
One of the great programming coups of this Festival is the concert Saturday, Nov. 4, 8 p.m. at the Masonic Center, featuring pianist Alice and saxophonist/son Ravi Coltrane with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Roy Haynes. Alice is the widow and last pianist of jazz giant John Coltrane. Ravi is their son and John’s saxophone heir. Haden, who comes from a country music family, played in Ornette Coleman’s early combos and is now acknowledged as one of the great jazz bassists. Haynes has played with everyone and among other accomplishments was the drummer on Coltrane’s greatest version of My Favorite Things performed live at Newport. This is one of only three American concerts that this quartet will be presenting.
Trombonist Roswell Rudd has been at the center of the free jazz movement since the early ‘60. Before that he played the music of Thelonious Monk and in dixieland bands. He has been on key albums with Archie Shepp and John Tchicai as well as on Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra album. He recently began working with Mongolian throat-singers, the results of which can be heard on his 2005 disc Blue Mongol. Strangely, his warm, earthy, throaty trombone sound melds beautifully with the Badma Khanda Mongolian Buryat Band of throat singers and instrumentalists. They perform together on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2 p.m. at the Palace of the Legion of Honor’s Florence Gould Theatre.
The festival comes to a close on Sunday, Nov. 12, 7 p.m. at the Palace of Fine Arts, with a farewell concert by John Santos and the Machete Ensemble. Afro-Latin percussionist John Santos is an educator and scholar as well as a major performer who has worked with Latin stars like Yma Sumac, Tito Puente, Patato Valdés, Armando Peraza, Lalo Schifrin, Santana, Cachao and Omar Sosa as well as jazz masters like Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Art Farmer, Bobby Hutcherson, McCoy Tyner and John Faddis.
His knowledge and experience of Afro-Latin percussion traditions, rooted in family, community, tradition, study, practice and meditation, is profound. For this final concert by the Ensemble, Santos will be joined by Ray Vega, Maria Marquez and a number of other special guests.
I only have room to breathlessly mention such promising concerts as blues harpist James Cotton (10/21), vibraphonist Stefon Harris (10/26), pianist Cyrus Chestnut (10/27), Astor Piazzolla pianist Pablo Ziegler, keyboard/reed/percussion phenomenon Peter Apfelbaum with the Kamikaze Ground Crew (11/1), and Django Reinhardt-styled guitar virtuoso Dorado Schmitt (11/12). For more information on the SF Jazz Festival call (415) 788-7353 or visit their website at www.sfjazz.org.