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Moment's Notice from Gregory James

Sunday June 12 was such a sad and tragic day. I am always truck by the irony that we live in a world full of hate and suffering, and love and beauty. And so I went to see Ravi Coltrane and his new sextette The Void at SF Jazz Sunday night, knowing that I would be uplifted and inspired. With Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Glenn Zalesky on piano, Dezron Douglas on bass, and Kush Abadey on drums, the sextette was fresh and new, but also firmly rooted in the tradition. Ravi seems to have relaxed over the years, matured as a soloist, and accepted his rightful place in one of the most celebrated families in music. Eubanks is a marvelous soloist, and the compositions took full advantage of all the timbers and textures the instruments allowed. Abadey's drumming was abstract and funky and groovy all at the same time; a young Jack DeJohnette. Zalensky had marvelous touch, and conjured Herbie and Bill Evans with his command of space. Six musicians, white and black, together listening to each other at the highest level of musical expression. What a fitting antidote to hatred. Later, at the Zuni Cafe, I saw the LGTBQ Rainbow Community marching down Market Street, peacefully holding candles. Love will always conquer hate.
Once again, I've been so busy experiencing all the fantastic performances the Bay Area offers I haven't had time to write about them. So, I guess I'll just enumerate the last month. Renee Fleming and Olga Kern at Zellerbach. Murray Perahia there also. Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekayu at SF Jazz. The Kronos Quartet performing Terry Riley's Sun Rings at Zellerbach - truly celestial. Oh, almost forgot the Takacs Quartet performing Hayden, Handel, and Beethoven. And, the fantastic Pierre Bonnard show at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Painting has always inspired me musically as much as music itself. Saw the show three times; the last time ran into my dear sax player Rita Thies, who was also knocked out by the show.
As is often the case, I've been so busy hearing great music that I haven't had time to write about it. I saw the opening night of Vicente at SF Jazz March 10. The heir to the genius of Paco de Lucia (Paco was godfather to Vicente's daughter, and Vicente to Paco's son) Vicente plays with an abandon and depth that only the complete mastery of an instrument allows. Like Paco, he is secure enough of his stature to explore other mediums and genres, notably his recording Tierra of a few years ago, which explored Celtic and Spanish themes with members of Mark Knopfler's band. (Ancient Celtic songs from Galicia are in fact incorporated into flamenco). This band featured the dancer Antonio "El Choro" Molina, the bassist Ewen Vernal, percussionist Paquito Gonzalez, and Rafael de Utrera and Antonio Fernandez on vocals and palmas. The program reached its climax with a rousing bulerias featuring Molina's inspired dancing. A "puro" recording of cante jondo is forthcoming.
David Bowie's final recording, Black Star, is a work of complete genius. I'm proud that it is in the same vein as our own The Valence Project, incorporating jazz, electronica, and rock. Like TVP, it is a vision of what pop music could be, if one were fearless. Recorded live with the Danny McCaslin Quartet, and Ben Monder on guitar, the vocals were re-done, but have a very spontaneous feel. There is lots of room for McCaslin to blow, on sax and flute. The drums are often sampled and looped, but also have a live, spontaneous feel. Each tune is completely different, but of a whole. Every artist wants to smuggle the fire of youth into the wisdom of old age. But very few artists have attempted to keep on making art up to the moment of death (David actually thought he had a few more months, and was in the studio with new demos the week before he died.) In the '70s he threatened to commit suicide on stage (it sold tickets) but he has given us something much more. Fear of death is there, of course, but so is the ache for transcendence. We are stardust. On his last tour, in 2004 at the Berkeley Community Theater, cigarette dangling debonairly, he admonished the front row security guards, "Oh, do let the kids dance". Let's Dance, indeed. Keep flying through the stars, David.
Once again I've been so busy I'm a bit late in reporting on all the fabulous music in town. Last Friday I saw Esperanza Spalding and the brilliant Brazilian composer, guitarist, and singer Guinga, as part of her SF Jazz four night residency. In truth, I should have seen all four, radically different groups, but back when I purchased the season tickets, the individual nights and musicians were TBA. Just turning 30, Spalding is a genius, and a leading light in new music. Comfortable in everything from straight ahead to funk environments, I'm fond of saying that she sings like Betty Carter, and plays like Ron Carter. And yet it took a duet setting with Guinga of his brilliant bossa tunes to make me realize just how flexible, and versatile, she is. Guinga first surfaced in the late 60's in Brazil, and was championed for many years by Ivan Lins. Like our own Willie Nelson, he was known primarily as a composer. With George Clooney good looks, the guitar mastery of Baden Powell, and the seductive voice of Dori Caymmi, it is a wonder he is not more famous. Perhaps his songs are too complex for mass market; they are more advanced, and even subtle, than Jobim's. Esperanza adores him, and the biggest surprise was her complete mastery of Portuguese! All combinations of guitar, acoustic bass, electric bass, guitar and vocals were explored - two consumate artists sitting side by side making magic. Esperanza's ability to become completely one with yet a different kind of music, and language was truly inspirational.
Zakir Hussein returned to SF Jazz for the second year of his residency - four nights. In truth, I should have gone to all four, but saw the Saturday performance, with Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Dave Holland on bass, Sanjay Divecha on guitar, Louiz Banks on piano, Chris Potter on sax, and the other-worldy "The Voice" as Zakir introduced him, Shankar Mahadevan, on vocals. Zakir is one of the most gifted musicians in the world, in any genre, and this was one of the most spectacular performances I have ever heard. (Hearing his father Alla Rakha, with Ravi Shankar when I was 15, the first of many, many times, was another). The level of musicianship on stage is almost impossible to describe. Dave Holland, who first came to prominence with Miles (Silent Way/Bitches Brew then Conference of the Birds with Anthony Braxton and hundreds of important recordings, including a recent one with Pepe Habichuela) kept the whole ensemble anchored. Zakir has an obvious love for Vinnie's drumming - they both played with Marcus Miller at a Herbie gig last year. In truth there are not too many western drummers who could keep up with Zakir's superhuman speed and flow of ideas. Vinnie was having a ball; I don't think I've ever heard him overplay before, but it was fine, and I've never seen him smile so much. Trading fours with Zakir at one point (in 4/4) he actually dropped a beat from being so enthralled with what Zakir did with the prior 16 beats. Most of the tunes were in 4, with funky sambas being a nice groove everyone could wail on. There were a couple of 6/8 tunes, one 5/4 tune, and one tune by Zakir, PI ("dedicated to one of my mentors, John McLaughlin") that I couldn't quite figure out what it was in, possibly 7 1/2 if that exists? As with all of the world's best musicians, everyone listened intently. And in the tunes with Shankar Mahadevan's Carnatic microtonal vocals, with all the musicians accompanying him, a true new world music was born; East, West, and Divine.
I've been so busy with my own music, and with my neuro disease company ALSP that I haven't mentioned a couple of great shows I saw recently at SF Jazz. September 12, The Chick Corea Trio, with Christian McBride and Brian Blade played the Miner Auditorium. Christian is, along with Charnette Moffat, and John Patitucci, one of the premier acoustic bass players of his generation. And Brian Blade is perhaps the most creative and abstract drummer around, with credits ranging from Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, to Joni Mitchell, Steve Earle, and Bob Dylan. Chick first played with Christian and Brian in the Five Peace Band with John McLaughlin in 2009. Five years later he toured with them as a trio, and their 2015 live 3 disc recording earned two GRAMMYS for Best Improvised Jazz Solo, and Best Jazz Instrumental Album. From standards to originals, they make the familiar seem fresh, and the unfamiliar a warm home.
For immediate release September 4, 2015 Gregory James Quartet Headlines Doc’s Lab Anniversary on Friday, September 11 San Francisco is a city that loves tradition and change in pretty much equal measure. That’s why it seems so fitting that Gregory James be called upon to perform the musical soundtrack at the first anniversary of one of The City’s finest new nightspots. On Friday, September 11, The Gregory James Quartet, featuring bassist Kai Eckhardt, will play at Doc’s Lab, carrying on the legendary tradition of adventurous, creative music and performance art carved out by the previous tenant at 124 Columbus Avenue, The Purple Onion. During the 1950s and ‘60s The Purple Onion became known for hosting the likes of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, for being the stage where folks like Phyllis Diller and The Kingston Trio got their start, and by the 1980s rock bands like Les Claypool’s Flying Bucket Brigade were recording live albums there. “The history of the room is very special to me as a native,” says guitarist Gregory James, noting that this is also the sole appearance he has booked with his longtime bassist and collaborator Kai Eckhardt. “This is special,” he says. Gregory James grew up in San Francisco, absorbing what he calls, “One big, beautiful mélange of American music,” the classic music of Broadway, jazz hybrids like Charles Lloyd’s quintet, and the psychedelic rock heard in Golden Gate Park. “That’s probably why I tend to blur jazz and rock more thoroughly than a lot of people,” he says. James’ first album, Alicia, was released on New York’s Inner City label in 1978. He produced records in the San Francisco Bay area over the next three decades featuring Paul McCandless, Ron Miles, Peter Michael Escovedo, Jenny Scheinman, Raul Rekow, Karl Perrazo, Paul Van Wageningen, Celia Malheiros and others. His bands have been defined by great bass players – Marc Van Wageningen, Derek Jones, Jon Herrera, Benny Reitveld, and again on his latest release, Cult of Beauty, the genre-hopping Kai Eckhardt. Cult of Beauty is the eleventh album by James. Like the best of his previous work, this one pinches from the raw soulfulness of earliest jazz-rock-funk adventures. And as much as it features his nimble guitar work, it exposes the explosive rhythms of Kai Eckhardt, the stylistic and funky bassist who has gained fame through work with John McLaughlin, Garaj Mahal and others. Doc’s Lab is an intimate, great sounding performance venue in North Beach, on Columbus between Jackson and Pacific. Doc’s Lab was named for the trailblazing marine biologist Edward Ricketts, drinking buddy, collaborator and best friend of John Steinbeck. Fittingly, the club has fantastic craft cocktails, over 50 types of bourbon, whiskey and rye, and great food by Chef Justin Deering. Seating is given on a first come, first served basis. The Gregory James Quartet, featuring Kai Eckhardt on bass, Rita Thies on woodwinds, and Rob Rhodes on drums, appears at Doc’s Lab, 124 Columbus Ave., on Friday, September 11 at 9pm. Tickets are available at
Last night the legendary Buddy Guy played Davies Symphony Hall as part of the SF Jazz summer series. Born in Louisiana, he moved to Chicago in 1957 and became a staff guitarist for Chess Records, playing on recordings with Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, Howling' Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Koko Taylor. As an architecht of the second generation of Chicago electric blues guitar style, he is, along with B.B. King, the most influential guitarist to all blues and rock guitar players. (Albert and Freddie King must of course also be mentioned.) While obscure in the US until the early 90's, he influenced Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton (The Cream was Clapton's idea based on the powerful Buddy Guy Trio) Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck, to name a few. With complete command of all blues idioms, he can sweep from rural delta blues to psychedelic wail in seconds. Dynamics is often missing even in great players, but Buddy delights in a wide pallet, from a whisper to a roar, and back again. His vocals are always intense, and riveting. At 79, he is the most supple being at that age I have ever seen. (Even Ravi Shankar would get a little stiffer physically each year, though it never affected his playing). Toward the end of the set he walked around the auditorium, and as he came within a few feet of me, playing screaming guitar, I realized how light his right hand attack was - the massive amps doing the heavy lifting. "Buddy Guy is by far and without a doubt the best guitar player alive. " — Eric Clapton
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.


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