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Moment's Notice from Gregory James

Marcus Miller brought his band to Yoshi's last night in support of his Blue Note Records debut, Afrodeezia. The recording was inspired by his role as a Unesco Artist for Peace and spokesman for The Slave Route Project. His touring band consists of saxophonist Alex Han, trumpeter Lee Hogans, pianist Brett Williams, guitarist Adam Agati, drummer Louis Cato, and Mino Cinelu, a delightful reunion for Marcus, as they both played with Miles. Mino was also one of my favorite (of many) Weather Report perusssionists. He adds both African and Brazillian flavors to Miller's bracing funk. "It was after visiting the House of Slaves on Gorée Island that I composed “Gorée,” explains Miller, referring to the powerful track featured on his previous album Renaissance. “Onstage I felt the need to say what I had been feeling in Senegal. I wanted people to understand that this tune spoke not only of the slave tragedy but, through the music especially, that these people who suddenly found themselves at the bottom of a ship's hold had discovered a way to survive, and were able in time to transform their distress into joy. Shortly after my trip to Gorée, UNESCO named me an Artist for Peace, and made me the spokesperson for the Slave Route Project. That was when I started thinking about Afrodeezia." The band played brilliantly under Marcus' direction; he played Goree on bass clarinet as the last tune of the regular set. Marcus is an artist I see whenever I can; a few months ago with Herbie Hancock and Zakir Hussain (!!!) and Vinnie Colaiuta at SF Jazz, and on my birthday a couple of years ago with Robben Ford and Joey DeFrancesco in a Miles tribute.
Last Thursday Laurie Anderson began her residency at SF Jazz with a duet performance with Eyvind Kang on viola. With Ms. Anderson on electric violin and MacBook (yes, I think we can officially call the Mac an instrument) generating samples and sound effects and loops and echoes, the expanded range of the viola to violin was lovely. They both improvised over tonal centers and motifs. One tends to forget what an accomplished violinist she is; for all the performance art aspects of her work and the visuals, this was a performance that centered on her tone (lovely, not an easy thing on a solid body electric) and ideas. I realized she has probably listened to a fair amount of the late violinist Billy Bang (a long time colleague of Butch Morris). The performance was re-scheduled from a year before, due to the death of Lou Reed. Without needing to overtly mention it, the evening was all about life, and death, and love. The first spoken words were about the death of her father, later the death of a mare, and the love of a stallion in her family for a mare, who was eventually sold, to the heartbreak of the stallion. There were no electronic effects on her voice, which was intimate and conversational in the small space. Kang was solid and attentive; often one had to look at their hands to figure out who was playing what. His acoustic viola, a beautiful instrument, was also treated with some looping and echo effects. Ms. Anderson, with trade mark spiked hair, wore a knee length baggy silk plaid shirt, and silk pants that resembled jeans. A very hip grunge look. As with all her performances, the profound, and the absurd are noted with wry humor and modesty, in the face of an unknowable universe. Which why, 40 years into her career, she is still the hippest gal (or guy) in town.
Friday night Esperanza Spalding and her 12 piece band Radio Music Society played as part of her 4 night residency at SF Jazz. They also played the Paramount in 2012 for SF Jazz in support of the group's first recording. Dedicated to the buzz one gets when hearing fresh music on the radio (for those of us that still do listen to the radio) Esperanza describes it as a blend of Brazilian, gospel, soul, and big band swing. She is undoubtedly one of the most technically gifted musicians in the world, both on bass and vocals. I first described her as a cross between Betty Carter and Ron Carter, and that still seems to fit. I once saw her roll over Ravi Coltrane at a McCoy Tyner gig; she and McCoy were miles ahead of the rest of the group. Radio Music Society has incredibly intricate arrangements (think Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder's Sir Duke) that only Esperanza could sing and play along with. In truth, her acoustic bass playing was way more locked in than her electric. Her fast bop walks are a wonder of the world. Still, this is meant to be pop, albeit of a lofty order. And as brilliant as her playing and singing is, pop music is about the song. And crafting a pop song is a completely different skill. The band members were all very competent (you would have to be to read the charts) but only Leo Genovese on piano, and Carl block on trombone, are world class soloists. Every Spalding performance is a must see, but one wishes for something a bit more from Radio Music Society. What if Betty Carter sang on Bitches Brew?
Saturday night the Charles Lloyd New Quartet played SF Jazz as part of his residency. Charles has been one of my most profound influences, since I saw his first great quartet, with Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette in the 60's at the Fillmore. (Opening for Albert King, headliner B.B. King, no less. Thank you Bill Graham). The New Quartet, with Jason Moran on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums, has been his primary vehicle since 2007. It is ironic, but probably not an accident, that the two most forward and contemporary bands in the world are led by elders: Charles Lloyd and Wayne Shorter. They have always pushed the boundaries, with exquisite taste. Charles was in brilliant form Saturday, it was perhaps the finest performance of his I've ever seen, and one of the very best performances I've seen from anyone. (Miles and Ravi Shanker clocked in a few). Many of the pieces started out as whisper soft ballads and then built to rock and roll intensity. (After the concert, Charles addressed the audience and reminded us that as a youth in Memphis, he played with many blues masters, including Johnny Ace, Bobby Blue Bland, Howling' Wolf, and B.B. King). They played through the changes of Autumn Leaves, without the melody, it became completely new. The final encore, requested by many in the audience, was Forest Flower. Like all forward explorers, I don't think he has played the song that made him famous for many years - like every note he plays, it was completely fresh and new. In the words of The New York Times’ Ben Ratliff: “Follow the career of Charles Lloyd, and you see a map of great jazz across half a century. His shows, full of momentum and intuition, perfectly represent the idea that the best jazz needs to be experienced live.” Charles's start in the big time was musical director for Chico Hamilton, with whom I had the privilege of playing in 1979-1980.
Last night the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed as part of a weeklong engagement at Cal Performances. They have appeared anually since 1968. The first piece, Odetta, was dedicated to the great singer and guitarist. A fitting tribute, with powerful ensemble dance and music from Odetta recordings. The power of her voice, and guitar, on spirituals, field hollers, gospel, prison songs and traditional folk songs intimidated the likes of Bob Dylan, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn and other young folkies in the Greenwich Village scene. The second piece, Bad Blood, with recordings by Peter Gabriel and Laurie Anderson, showcased the amazing athleticism for which the company is known. Caught was a solo dance, with music by Robert Fripp, using strobe lighting to freeze poses in mid air. The company always closes with Revelations, by the Master Alvin Ailey. Apparently audiences demand it, and while brilliant, there are many other pieces of his that go neglected. 25 years after his passing, Ailey's vision of a racially diverse, powerful expression of the American experience remains vital. Unlike most great artists (Ellington, Parker, Picasso) who go into some decline for a period after their passing, Ailey has remained at the forefront of his art. Hendrix comes to mind, having also never slipped into neglect.
Last night we saw the brilliant Spanish pianist Alex Conde for the second time in a month. (He's that good) This was a live performance of his recording "Descarga for Monk" at Doc's Lab, a fantastic new club at the site of the historic Purple Onion. With a complete command of flamenco and jazz, he was joined by John Santos on congas, Jeff Chambers on bass, Jon Arkin on drums, the other worldly beautiful La Tania and Melissa Cruz on palmas and baile, and Jose Grillo, cante, cajon, and palmas. Quite a few Spanish pianists have tried to incorporate flamenco; the technical challenges of playing what is at heart a guitar based music have defeated most. Conde's left hand could be Paco's or Tomatito's bass string falsettas; he even quoted Diego del Gastor in his performance last week at the Red Poppy Art House, which featured Melissa Cruz and Fanny Ara, and Jose Cortes on cante. Possessed of a brilliant crisp technique, and a seemingly infinite wellspring of ideas, he is not to be missed.
Saturday evening Zakir Hussein and guitarist Lionel Loueke played SF Jazz as part of Zakir's week-long residency. They first performed together last year in a fantastic Herbie Hancock gig that also included Vinnie Colaiuta and Marcus Miller. Zakir, of course, is one of the most accomplished musicians the world has ever known, from North Indian classical, to fusion with Shakti, to an endless stream of world music collaborations. Lionel, from Benin, is best known for his work with Herbie, and Terence Blanchard. Mother Africa wed Mother India in an extraordinary evening of music. Lionel is also a gifted vocalist, incorporating clicking sounds from Benin. One can hear echoes of Jerry Garcia, Pat Martino, and Jimmy Page in his playing. He used samplers and delays to create landscapes, propelled by Zakir's constant creativity. They were joined on some pieces by Rakesh Chaurasia on Bansuri flute, and Ganesh Rajagopalan on violin and vocals, and the music truly soared. I believe it was completely improvised, and their level of intuition was extraordinary. Hopefully there will be a recoding.
Thursday evening Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock performed as a duo at Cal Performances. For many years Cal Performances has booked jazz programming to rival or surpass SF Jazz. To me, and I imagine many others, this was the anticipated jazz concert of the season. It did not dissapoint. Two paralel Steinway concert grands with the lids down, and two synth keyboards were all these grandmasters needed. From the first few notes on acoustic, they sounded exactly as I thought they might. Chromatic, slightly dissonant, at first I thought they were channeling Webern, but from the program notes of other performances, it may well have been excerpts from Bartok's Mikrokosmos. Chick tended to play lead in the upper register as the improvisation unfolded, with Herbie providing telepathic accompianment with chords in the middle and lower register. Given identical instruments, it was instructive to hear the difference in tone; Chick brighter throughout the evening, Herbie darker and lush. This first piece segued into All Blues! I've always said great improvisors can make an old piece fresh; it took the audience a while to realize what they were hearing. Herbie, of course, was still with Miles when that tune was occasionally in the set list. Although only a year apart, Chick spoke of first seeing Herbie lead a jam session on a Monday night in 1959 at Birdland, and has considered him a hero ever since. Herbie spoke of once calling Chick from a recording session to make sure a tune he had just written wasn't in fact Chick's. The template was set for the evening's performance: an ultra-modern chromatic intro, which could range from ballad to stride, eventually turning into a re-worked chestnut from their pasts. Cole Porter's (You'd Be) So Easy to Love was a delight. The encores: Maiden Voyage, and then Spain, with Chick leading the audience in a four part sing-along harmony. At one point he had the audience sing back phrases he and Herbie were improvising. It literally took the audience inside the head of the performer. Bravo!
Sunday Cassandra Wilson performed a preview of her new album, a tribute to Billie Holiday titled "Coming Forth By Day". That the title comes from The Egyptian Book of the Dead gives one a clue to the complexity and intelligence she brings to each project. The stage band consisted of Kevin Breit on guitar, long time collaborator Charlie Burnham on violin, John Cowherd on piano, John Davis on drums, Robby Marshall on tenor, clarinet, and bass clarinet, and the legendary Lonnie Plaxico on solid body stand up bass. Polytonal and sometimes chromatic, the music gave an otherworldly and beautifully modern take on such Holiday standards as "Don't Explain". The bass clarinet gave a Bitches Brew vibe from time to time. The guitarist, who also served as music director, was my only disappointment. Twangy and tinny (not that twangy is bad) he droned mechanically through many of the arrangements on pedal tones that ignored the complex chord changes most of these standards employ. One doesn't have to play "through" changes, as we musicians say, but you do have to be aware of them. Between his playing, and the complex layering of the band, it was truly amazing to hear Cassandra stay on pitch. Fortunately T Bone Burnett and Nick Zinner play guitars on the recording. The one original tune,"Last Song (For Lester)" evokes Billie's grief at the loss of the love of her life, Lester Young.
The great Taj Mahal is at SF Jazz this week, and I was fortunate to see last night's show. Billed as the Taj Mahal Trio, with Bill Rich on bass and Kester Smith on drums, they have been his band for quite a few years now. Born in Harlem to a West Indian father who was a jazz musician, Taj has always incorporated music from all over the world, Caribbean, African, South Pacific, through to spirituals, field hollers, rural, and even Chicago electric blues. And the blues it is. He has one of the most distinctive blues vocal styles, coupled with Rev. Gary Davis inspired finger picking. "Who was that guy in the 60's who used to open for everybody?" a friend asked me recently - it was Taj Mahal. On the stage last night was a beautiful copper dobro, a banjo, a Martin steel string and a nylon string Takamine, and a custom built Howard Roberts inspired arch top, as well as a Kurtzweill (Ray currently serving as head of AI at GOOGLE) electric keyboard. He would pick up an instrument, and then decide what to play. It ranged from West African griot to lots of country blues. The last two tunes before the encores where rousing, loud, distorted electric Chicago styles blues, that got the crowd, mostly pretty young women, up and dancing. I learned last night that his first band 50 years ago was with Ry Cooder, called The Rising Sons. Columbia never released the project. Fools.


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