Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Summer Jazz Fest Invokes Spirit of Musical Adventure

The annual jazz festival brought a variety of local and worldwide talents to the South Bay
The annual jazz festival that took over downtown San Jose this past weekend brought a variety of local and worldwide talents to the South Bay. Photo by Greg Ramar

Facetiously speaking, what was once called the San Jose Jazz Festival a long time ago can these days be understood as the "San Jose R&B, Latin, Hip-hop, Tango, Blues and Occasionally Some Jazz Festival."

Nevertheless, the vibrant three-day affair—known for many years as the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest—brings a variety of music, both commercial and independent, both local and worldwide, to both outdoor and indoor venues.

As usual, if one is a spirited adventurer, as most jazz fans are, then unexpected cosmic revelations appear around every corner. With the stipulation that Western linear summaries do not accommodate such a festival, the indoor/outdoor polarity erupted right off the bat. My opening-night infiltration began with the Tango Jazz Quartet at Cafe Stritch and then eventually continued with a total surprise, the Pascal Bokar Afro Blue Grazz Band in the Fairmont's Club Regent room. With probably a dozen musicians, Bokar served up a wild bouillabaisse of West African rhythms, American bluegrass, French chansons and 12-bar blues seemingly layered with Moroccan textures. Dancers took over the aisles and the floor in front of the stage, with everyone truly enjoying their craft. After a lengthy set change, on came local legend Eddie Gale telling stories and directing his band. Over the decades, Gale has educated many people around here, but he hadn't gigged at the festival in several years.

Saturday exploded right out of the gate with locals galore, beginning at high noon when Sylvia Cuenca's Quartet played at Cafe Stritch. Immediately thereafter, the San Jose School of Rock kids played on the Boom Box Stage inside the park, and Wally Schnalle along with the SJZ Collective reimagined several Monk tunes inside the Fairmont.

The big smash surprise of the day came from the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio of the fabulous Northwest, featuring Lamarr on a smoking Hammond B3 machine, Jimmy James wailing on guitar, and David McGraw on drums. They tore up the Taurinus Stage, a restaurant converted into an indoor venue.

Other experiences from that afternoon included Booker T. Jones on the main stage, SJSU's Aaron Lington playing Astor Piazzolla tunes for a packed house inside the Fairmont and Yoshiaki Miyanoue playing "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" in the British Airways Lounge upstairs in the Hammer Theatre. In the latter case, VIPs and sponsors gushed with giddy euphoria over the Dionne Warwick tune as if they'd never before heard anyone else play it. I shook my head.

That night at Stritch, Jackie Gage performed a much better tune about San Jose, a gem she wrote all by herself. The sold-out show was possibly her best ever in this city. Many were stuck outside because the place was filled to capacity, which means she just might require a bigger venue next time.

By the time Herb Alpert hit the main stage Sunday afternoon, I'd already scribbled down several pages of notes, so I gave up trying to sort it all out, but it's safe to say there is no simply such thing as a decent record collection without a few beaten, thrashed Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass LPs. On this day, along with Lani Hall, his wife of 44 years, Alpert ran through a medley of hits, both his own and those of Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66, for whom Hall was an original backup singer.

Perhaps the best aspects of the festival, though, are the impromptu random encounters that come out of nowhere. At Cafe Stritch, for example, I slithered out to the patio with a French Dip and fries, only to hear saxophonist James Carter telling Sun Ra stories from decades ago. This was a performance in of itself.

Carter, along with fellow virtuoso Steve Turre, was part of Vincent Herring's Story of Jazz Orchestra on the main stage, playing hits from every era of jazz throughout the 20th century. I didn't think any group could make that nauseating Chuck Mangione tune listenable, but somehow they did.

By sheer coincidence, you can see all of three of those heroes—Turre, Carter and Herring—yet again this weekend at Cafe Stritch for the sixth annual Rahsaanathon, celebrating the music of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a spirited adventurer if ever there was one.