35th San Francisco Jazz Festival goes live

Poster courtesy SFJAZZ

It’s all go at SFJAZZ this week as the 35th San Francisco Jazz Festival gets underway. With 43 concerts over the next 13 days, at 5 different venues, it’s no wonder that the Chicago Tribune refers to this annual event as “The crown jewel among American jazz festivals”.

This evening’s concert in the Miner Auditorium features a performance by the all-star band Hudson. Jack DeJohnette – “regarded as one of the finest living drummers” says the Los Angeles Times – bassist Larry Grenadier, keyboardist John Medeski and guitarist John Scofield – perform a repertoire of numbers ranging from original compositions to those from Bob Dylan and the Band, and Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock anthem.  They also celebrate their latest CD which is released this month.

Pianist Monty Alexander brings his Harlem-Kingston Express project to the Herbst Theatre this evening, with guitarist Andy Bassford, JJShakur on acoustic bass, Joshua Thomas on electric bass, and drummers Karl Wright and Obed Calvaire. Listed as the fifth greatest jazz pianist ever in The Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players of All Time (Hal Leonard Publishing) and with a mention in 88: The Giants of Jazz Piano by Robert Doerschuk, he “naturally and joyfully” revels in his “multi-cultural and multi-ethnic” background, skilfully bridging the gap between the music of his native Jamaica and American jazz.

Tomorrow evening, the Herbst Theatre hosts pianist and composer Fred Hersch, with guitarist Julian Lage and vocalist Kate McGarry. Hersch, described by Vanity Fair as “the most arrestingly innovative pianist in jazz” has appeared with a range of artists which includes Joe Henderson, Charlie Haden, Stan Getz, Renée Fleming, Audra McDonald, Nancy King, and Kurt Elling. September sees the release of his next album Open Book, and a new memoir Good Things Happen Slowly.

Friday evening and Saturday afternoon see performances at the Miner Auditorium by singer and songwriter Lizz Wright, whose “sumptuous earthy voice … commands strict and often spine-tingling attention”, says The New York Times. On her latest album, Freedom & Surrender (Concord Records) – her first album of new material in five years – she collaborates with vocal star Gregory Porter and award-winning producer Larry Klein.

On Saturday evening, the stage of the Miner Auditorium is taken over by The Suffers, described by Spin Magazine as “a ten-piece soul collective that steeps their tracks in jazzy history with a modern twist ….. the sort of neo-retro group you never knew music was so badly missing”. Led by vocalist Kam Franklin, they describe their ‘Gulf Coast Soul’ music as a mixture of old school rock, Southern hip-hop, reggae and Muscle Shoals-type R&B.


Back to the Herbst Theatre for Saturday evening, we find the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Headed by Jeff Clayton on alto saxophone, bassist John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton on drums – it’s regarded as one of the finest working bands in the world, continuing in the tradition of Count Basie and Thad Jones – and referred to by JazzTimes as “One of current jazz’s most vital large ensembles”.

Sunday’s performance in the Miner Auditorium features a name with which many of us have been familiar for years – Herb Alpert – who shot to fame with his enduringly popular Tijuana Brass sound in the early 60s. Described by AllMusic as “One of the most successful instrumental performers in pop history”, he also co-founded the A&M record label in 1962, signing up some of the most successful artists of that time. For his performance at this SFJAZZ Festival, Herb Alpert is joined by his longtime partner Lani Hall, originally a vocalist for Sergio Mendes’ Brasil ’66.


Jake Shimabukuro, regarded as one of the world’s greatest ukelele players, takes over Davies Symphony Hall on Sunday evening. Having assembled a huge international fan base, he’s described by All Music Guide as “a monster musician and boldly takes the ukulele where no ukulele has ever gone before, dazzling listeners with his blinding speed, melodic invention, and open-ended improvisations of remarkable virtuosity”.

With the Miner Auditorium, the Herbst Theatre or Davies Symphony Hall hosting these fabulous concerts, there are plenty of good things going on in the Joe Henderson Lab as well.

Vocalist Nicolas Bearde makes his Festival debut this evening with a tribute to Lou Rawls, the artist who pioneered the crossover of soul and jazz. Bearde is joined by keyboardist Glen Pearson, Gary Brown on bass, saxophonist Charles McNeal and drummer Leon Joyce Jr.

Friday’s artist is Amina Figarova, originally from Azerbaijan, who is regarded as one of the most celebrated pianists and composers in the world of jazz. Her compositions Pictures and The Traveler were commissioned by Jazz from Lincoln Center for its 2014-15 New Jazz Standards series, and she’s been described by Marian McPartland as “without a doubt, one of the most brilliant and prolific pianists and composers on the jazz scene”.

San Francisco singer and songwriter Martin Luther McCoy  is next up at the Joe Henderson Lab. With the Black Sugar Ensemble, he pays tribute to Otis Redding and the founders of soul in a performance which features his own mix of blues-style R&B, funk, rock, and what’s described as “old school soul”. USA Today says: “Thanks to visionaries like Luther, the future of soul music actually looks brighter than ever’.

Shahin Novrasli, another Azerbaijani pianist, is certainly making his name among young jazz virtuoso pianists. Championed by Ahmad Jamal, and having appeared at London’s Royal Festival Hall, at the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Black Sea Jazz Festival, and Prague’s Mezinarodni Piano Festival, as well as throughout the United States, he’s certainly causing a stir. “His touch,” says The Guardian, “is exquisite and his speed jaw-dropping.”

And there’s more to come next week.

For more information on all these performances, those taking place next week, and for tickets, visit the SFJAZZ website.



SFJAZZ program notes

Artists’ websites


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