Saturday, June 7, 2008

When Jazz Stars Align

Much of the impact of good music is subconscious. It can resurface at any time, even 38,000 feet above Wyoming. I had worried needlessly that a week in northern California would dull my recollection of two nights at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, the two opening concerts held in the small Jackson Theater in Santa Rosa. The venue is perfect for chamber jazz, small enough for intimacy, a great sound system, away from the bustle of this growing Sonoma County city. But the hall was also very dark and my scrawled notes nearly impossible to read days later, with such interfering sensations as driving along Highway 1 toward Mendocino, the best Thai curry I’ve ever tasted, the smooth-as-glass waters of Lake Tahoe, the wind blowing hard through row upon row of new grapes in Russian River vineyards. Aboard a crowded 757 enroute home, indeed some details are gone, but the poetry remains: One night of Fred Hersch and Kurt Elling, another night of Charles Lloyd and his latest configurations including tabla master Zakir Hussein and young piano monster Jason Moran.

Fred Hersch has intrigued me since I heard his early recordings, interpretations of standards as well as Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk. His affinity for vocalists is well represented in his discography but perhaps never better than his own compositions, setting Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to music in the company of two of the finest vocalists on the planet—Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry. Is there is anyone more elegantly attuned to the nuances of the piano? Kurt Elling is to the human voice what Fred Hersch is to the piano, but with a higher profile. He’s equally at home interpreting great standards like “Bye Bye Blackbird” and writing new lyrics for jazz classics like “Body and Soul.” Both musicians use elastic phrasing that they transform into hornlines; both can make you laugh or cry with minimal notes. Their collaboration seems inevitable, stars in perfect alignment. And such an alignment was the opening concert of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival on May 30th in Santa Rosa’s Jackson Theater. Poetry transcends form. Fred Hersch and Kurt Elling, whether reinterpreting Walt Whitman or inventing language in the moment, are complementary instruments, contrapuntal minds, weavers tying souls together with silken thread.

Charles Lloyd is another intriguing, somewhat mystical figure on and off the jazz scene over the past five decades. My first encounters with his flute and saxophone came on the early ECM recordings with Keith Jarrett. He was in retreat for a period, resurfacing in the 90s, ultimately in collaboration with the late drummer Billy Higgins, and lately in his trios with young drum master Eric Harland and Indian tabla guru Zakir Hussein. His music often reflects Eastern or Latin folk traditions, and he’s been known to sit at the piano, behind the drum kit, add hand percussion or harrowing sounds of flute, taragato or Tibetan oboe. You’re never sure what his ensembles will perform but you can always count on an evening of globally, spiritually inspired music. The concert on the festival’s second night in the Jackson Theater was filled with soaring moments and reflective calm, in varying configurations of the five musicians – four of whom now comprise Lloyd’s new “Rabo de Nube” Quartet (with Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland) and three of whom form the “Sangam” Trio (with Harland and Hussein). Most intriguing were the trading of sounds and patterns among Hussein and Harland, the raw energy created by the addition of Jason Moran’s piano, the pulsations from bassist Reuben Rogers. On flute or sax, Lloyd was masterful, dropping gorgeous arpeggios and sinewy phrases. Sometimes the harmonies evoked Coltrane in Marrakesh, a carnival in Havana. An encore featuring Lloyd’s recitation ended the night in meditation. Again, poetry transcends form. Charles Lloyd and his companions are nomadic storytellers, wandering through centuries and continents.

The Healdsburg Jazz Festival is one of those little gems of musical enchantment that seldom receives the press it deserves, but maybe that is a good thing as the festival has maintained a small town intimacy seldom enjoyed at a jazz festival of national stature. Jessica Felix and company have been producing incredible opportunities to hear the best of modern jazz for ten seasons in the heart of Sonoma wine country. In addition to creative musicians with ties to the Bay Area (like Lloyd, Hersh, Billy Hart and young guitar sensation Julian Lage), such giants as McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton and Frank Morgan have appeared on the festival roster in the past decade. It’s definitely worth the travel from the Midwest. And this year, the stars were in perfect alignment.

Photos, not from Healdsburg: Top, Fred Hersch at the 2007 IAJE Convention; Kurt Elling performing last year at the Dakota (photos by Andrea Canter)