This preview of the 2007 SF Jazz Festival, the 25th running of our inspired local jazz derby, must needs begin in medias res since the first two events of the season, author Ben Ratliff and guitarist John McLaughlin, have already come and gone. Not to worry. You still have a chance to catch 37 more performances before the festival closes on Jan. 25 with a concert by Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares at Grace Cathedral.
Bulgarian sacred choral singing may seem like a stretch for a jazz festival, but it fits in with the range of music that this festival embraces: Cape Verdean vocals from Sara Tavares; Cuban music from Isaac Delgado and Gonzalo Rubalcaba as well as the Conga kings, Candido, Patato Valdes and Giovanni Hidalgo; Latin jazz from Pete Escovedo and John Santos; Brazilian newcomer CéU as well as Brazilian Tropicália legend Caetano Veloso; avant-garde classical from the Kronos Quartet; sitar master Ravi Shankar accompanied by his daughter Anoushka; Saharan guitarists Tinariwen and Vieux Farka Touré and Senegalese vocalist Youssou N’Dour; Portuguese fado star Cristina Branco; and Israeli singer-songwriter Chava Alberstein.
There is still plenty of music for traditionalists, though, with concerts from Dr. John and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band; saxophonists Ornette Coleman, Pharaoh Sanders, Paquito D’Rivera and Joe Lovano; harmonica master Toots Thielmans; vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling and Nancy King; pianists Ahmad Jamal, Tord Gustavson, Fred Hersch, Jason Moran, Jon Jang, Jackie Terrasson and Herbie Hancock; drummer T. S. Monk; and guitarists John Abercrombie and Dorado Schmitt.
Without a doubt, the most important event of the festival is the appearance by avant-garde jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman who this year received both a Pulitzer, for his album Sound Grammar, as well as a Grammy for lifetime achievement.
Ornette, 77, made his first recordings for the Contemporary label in Los Angeles in 1958 and 1959. Dispensing with the piano after his first album, he soon caught the attention of the jazz world playing with a quartet that included either Ed Blackwell or Billy Higgins on drums, Charlie Haden on bass and Don Cherry on pocket trumpet. Ornette himself played a white plastic alto saxophone. It was his sound, however, that divided jazz into two warring camps, although it was the critics and fans more than the musicians who went to war.
By dispensing with conventional harmony, refusing to run the chord changes that were so central to bebop and hard bop, he pushed Thelonious Monk’s idea of thematic variation to its limits. He composed unusual compositions like Lonely Woman, The Blessing and Ramblin’, whose tonalities fell between the notes of traditional Western scales.
In fact, what Ornette did was quite traditional within the framework of jazz history. Like Louis Armstrong, he projected the raw emotions expressed in the flatted thirds, fifths and sevenths of the so-called blues scale on to a music played on European instruments. He was retrieving the microtones that got lost or buried during the middle passage. He dispensed with symmetrically mathematical song forms just as earlier jazz improvisers had always invented asymmetrical melodies while soloing. His sound was uniquely human, immediate and thrilling, a return to the vocalic origins of the music.
Ever since those groundbreaking early recordings almost 50 years ago, Ornette has continued to pursue his own eccentric musical path, creating an emotionally supercharged music informed by his personal lyricism. His current rhythm section, Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen on acoustic bass and his son Denardo on drums, is the same one that played the festival in 2005 as well as on his Pulitzer Prize-winning album. That live performance, as well as the one on the album, presents some of Ornette’s most accessible and sublime music. In a most American way, he continues to sound his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Another must-see group is Dorado Schmitt’s Django Reinhardt Festival Band. Schmitt, a Gypsy guitarist and violinist from the Lorraine region of France, first played the Bay Area with saxophonist James Carter in 2004. His band, with Carter on board, had already wowed everyone at the Django Festival at New York City’s Birdland in 2002. For this festival appearance, the group is joined by Cuban-born clarinet virtuoso Paquito D’Rivera.
Belgian Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, for those who do not know, was certainly the first great non-American jazz musician. Along with violinist Stephane Grappelli, he formed the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, and together (and apart, as well) they made some of the greatest jazz recordings of the swing era.
Django’s music was lyrical, swinging, free, inventive and technically astounding. It is always surprising to find out that the fingers of Reinhardt’s left hand had been mutilated in a conflagration of wax flowers in his caravan. He subsequently had the use of only two fingers of that hand. In spite of, or because of, this limitation, he could play runs of notes on the guitar that still seem impossible, even for those with ten fingers.
Schmitt is among a handful of players who have come close to catching the spirit as well as technical virtuosity of Reinhardt’s music. The addition of D’Rivera, a founding member of Irakere and one of the greatest Latin jazz players of all time, only increases the potential greatness of this concert.
Ornette Coleman will perform at the Masonic Center in San Francisco on Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. Dorado Schmitt’s Django Reinhardt Festival Band with Paquito D’Rivera will perform at Herbst Theatre on Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. There will also be a family matinee concert without Paquito at 3 p.m., same date. For more information on all the events of the SF Jazz Festival call (866) 920-5299 or go to their website at sfjazz.org.