A & E

SFJAZZ Center’s Summer of Jazz: Music is in the Air

Taj Mahal performs in Glastonbery in 2005. Photo:

It is summer in San Francisco and music is in the air. So far, the SFJazz Festival and Summer Sessions have been rolling along so successfully it is impossible to touch on the multitude and variety of all that has happened. However, one thing the festival has made clear: Just as sound and people travel, music travels with them, and this is on full display in the music showcased not only in the SFJazz Festival, but also in the Summer Sessions, which are still underway in San Francisco.


SFJazz Center kicked off their SFJazz Festival and Summer Sessions with a Hayes Valley block party featuring Beso Negro and Howard Wiley & Extra Nappy. This pairing served as a fitting indicator of the complexity and variety of musical forms that followed, and are upcoming under the inclusive rubric of “jazz.”

Beso Negro, with their contemporary interpretation of “gypsy swing” — often associated with gypsy guitarist Jean “Django” Reinhardt and his associate violinist Stéphane Grappelli, and sometimes called by its French name, jazz manouche — referenced the movements and histories of gypsies (Romani originally from Northern India) and the sources inherited from migration across Mid-West Asia, and Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, with ongoing influences incorporated from modern musical incarnations.

Similarly, Extra Nappy, headed by Howard Wiley, threw down their usual double-tough soulfully funky brand of hard-hitting jazz that spoke by proxy of the range of musical forms featured in June’s SFJazz Festival and the July Summer Sessions.

The roster of players presented in five different venues around San Francisco speaks volumes: Ahmad Jamal, Monsieur Periné, Irma Thomas, Sérgio Mendes, Tuck and Patti, Marcus Miller, Brian Blade Fellowship, Amadou & Mariam, Arturo Sandoval, Broken Shadows, David Grisman, Chucho Valdés & Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Taj Mahal, Dakha Brakha, Zakir Hussain/Dave Holland/Chris Potter trio, Arturo Sandoval, Broken Soweto Kinch, and many more.

Irma Thomas, for example, is a contemporary of Aretha Franklin and the late Etta James, and while she never gained their notoriety or commercial success, she showed why she has long been considered the “Soul Queen of New Orleans,” despite being under-recognized, with her real-deal blues and soulful equivalent of what could be interpreted as a form of secular gospel-soul church music that completely thrilled the audience in attendance.

So too, Amadou & Mariam, the famed “blind couple from Mali,” brought their grooving, Grammy-nominated mix of Malian roots and rock-flavored blues that wowed the crowd the night I saw them.

Zakir Hussain, Dave Holland, and Chris Potter — three of the most influential musicians currently playing — were also exquisite with their masterly blend of Indian rhythms and classic jazz virtuosity.


While many shows are rapidly approaching and are sure to sell out, one must-see show I am particularly looking forward to is Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba (Aug. 2–5), two of the greatest living Cuban pianists. Chucho Valdez is a reigning Cuban virtuoso piano genius. A key figure in the evolution of Afro-Cuban jazz, he is responsible for collaborations that have bridged musical and cultural borders. A vanguard player-composer who has qualitatively expanded the synthesis of Afro-Cuban folkloric rhythms and post-bop, Valdes is a seminal figure in the history of Cuban jazz who has moved beyond categories of genre and style into realms of hyper-cosmic musical space. Equally gifted, Gonzalo Rubalcaba is a pianist of almost supernatural ability, capable of reaching unfathomable heights through his limitless technical ability and multilayered syncopated rhythms that create a rapturous sensibility, which, in combination with the sonorous depths of Chucho Valdez’s capacity to soar, will no doubt cast a spellbinding “trance,” for which the show is titled.

An important upcoming component of the Summer Session is the New Sound of Cuba. Dayramir Gonzalez (Aug. 4) — mentored by Chucho Valdés — whose work extends the brilliant legacy of Cuban jazz pianists has sold out one show, and the other almost; similarly with the Havana-born drumming powerhouse Yissy García (Aug. 3–4). There’s more availability for Cuban piano virtuoso Daniel Amat (Aug. 2), whose beautifully unique style and command of the piano should be great, and the highly danceable Los Angeles-based band Changüí Majadero (Aug. 5), whose modern take on the Afro-Cuban musical tradition of changüí, the 19th-century foundation of contemporary salsa informed by African influences. These shows, too, are rapidly selling out.


In this regard, SFJAZZ, Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, and the Museum of the African Diaspora are collaborating on a six-week lecture series, “The Roots of Salsa, Unsung Heroes,” hosted by John Santos and featuring some live musical examples in addition to selections from Santos’s legendary collection of audio and video recordings. The series is anchored in the unsung histories of musicians, composers, and arrangers whose contributions to the legacy and living history of Afro-Caribbean culture will be excavated, honored and remembered, in the following presentations:

Aug. 8:   Ráices Afro-Cubanas

Aug.15: Cuba Clásica with special guests Cuarteto Colibrí

Aug. 22: New York of the 40s & 50s — Época de Oro

Aug. 29: Puerto Rico del Alma with special guests Cuarteto Pedro Pastrana

Sept. 5:   New York — Cuna de la Salsa

Sept. 12: Contemporary Pillars

TAJ MAHAL (AUG. 16–19)

One last obligatory reminder: Do not miss Taj Mahal. There are not enough superlatives to articulate the power and range of what he has to offer across the fields of blues, folk, reggae, Afro-beat, and jazz. When Taj Mahal performs, you witness a giant soul housed in a big man, expressing a lust for life that is infectious.

I could go on, but I won’t. Don’t take my word for it: Go and see this show, or any performance of your choosing. You won’t be disappointed. All the music reminds us that our experience is based in the world we live in, and that the world and everything in it is part of our experience; as are the people, histories, and creative legacies we inherit.

SFJazz Summer Sessions: 201 Franklin St., 866-920-5299,; box office Tue.–Sat., 11 a.m.–5 p.m. or until end of final performance.


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