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Jazz in the City

San Jose Jazz Festival
Greg Allen

Sole Music: The members of B Sharp--Randall Willis (left), Herb Graham Jr., Osama Afifi and Rodney Lee­put the pedal to the metal Saturday at the San Jose Jazz Festival.

B Sharp, Norman Connors, Brad Mehldau, Bill Cunliffe and Dianne Reeves shine on main and side stages at San Jose Jazz Festival

THERE WAS a time when jazz festivals were synonymous with Monterey or L.A., but in the past few years, San Jose has shown itself to be a serious contender for jazz capital of the West Coast. This year's TCI San Jose Jazz Festival (which runs through Aug. 10) features a lineup that embraces everything from Latin to lounge, fusion to funk. As a matter of course, several internationally acclaimed acts are featured, among them the veteran organ/sax tandem of Jimmy McGriff and Hank Crawford, but plenty of youngbloods are represented as well.

B Sharp is among the most promising young aggregates to emerge from L.A.'s burgeoning improvisational-music scene. Fronted by drummer Herb Graham Jr., B Sharp represents jazz at the street level. The quartet possesses plenty of the DIY attitude that kick-started hip-hop and punk rock.

In order to get the word out, the band has used the tried-and-true tactics. "We go with the guerrilla method," Graham declares. "[Early on], our [record] distribution wasn't what we wanted it to be, so we started sending out posters to our friends in cities we were going to play and having them hang them up--stuff like that."

It seems to have worked. Since the group's founding, B Sharp has amassed a sizable audience both here and abroad. With one foot in the bop era and another in the here and now, the foursome (Graham; saxophonist Randall Willis; keyboardist Rodney Lee; and bassist Osama Afifi) developed in L.A.'s Crenshaw District music scene in the early 1990s. Famed drummer and artistic mentor Billy Higgins' World Stage provided the space for groups like B Sharp and Black/Note to grow, not unlike Minton's in Harlem back when bebop was germinating.

Though well-versed in the bebop tradition, Willis credits groups as diverse as the swing band Zoot Case and the alterna-hop outfit the Pharcyde for helping him discover his own approach to music. Graham also points to gigs with the Supremes and other soul acts as formative. Hence, it's not surprising that he dismisses charges of diluting the jazz tradition. "Everybody should be able to do the music they want to do," he asserts.

B Sharp's self-titled debut album shows off the unit's chops and compositional skills to excellent effect, from the cerebral "Analytical Cubism" to the swinging blues of "Father Knows Best."

First and foremost, Graham says, B Sharp is concerned with songwriting, as opposed to four guys who want to let the world know they can blow. Searching for the One, the group's latest effort, continues B Sharp's expansive, progressive style, borrowing from hip-hop's whomp and modern funk while remaining true to its jazz roots.

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Jazz Online:

This weekend's schedule and the San Jose Jazz Festival official site, plus B Sharp, Sharp's sound clips and Norman Connors.

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POSTMODERN BOP in the afternoon isn't the whole show; there are also plenty of twilight grooves. Club Ibex presents one of pop music's most sublime acts in Norman Connors (Friday at 9 and 11pm; $20). Though a drummer by trade, Connors was as much a catalyst as he was a musician.

Throughout the 1970s, Connors lured many brilliant jazz players and neo-jazzers to perform his highly evocative brand of post­New Black Music. Pharoah Sanders, Stanley Clarke, Ron Carter and a number of other players pitched in to help Connors shape some of the most sumptuous dreamscapes of that transitional era. Though the usually sprawling mini­big bands were responsible for some excellent recordings, Dark of Light and Dance of Magic stand out as truly exceptional.

Gordon Biersch's Courtyard Stage will also showcase some worthy talents, including "I'm too sexy for myself" crooner Toledo, whose sleepy-eyed performances and Fishnets & Dragnets album have garnered lots of attention recently. Singer Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers high-step across musical borders as if they were nonexistent. Strains of blues, jazz, swing and R&B are part of the mix, though the singer has a particular interest in the music of Ellington and Billie Holiday.
By Nicky Baxter

Blame It On My Youth

SCATTERED over eight stages, the San Jose Jazz Festival is something of a musical treasure hunt. Many of the most interesting events take place on side stages or early in the afternoon. The hard-swinging Bay Area quartet led by trumpeter Tom Peron and drummer Bud Spangler plays the Starbucks Pavilion Stage on Saturday at 4pm and is worth catching, as is the fine East Coast alto and tenor saxophonist Greg Abate, who's playing the Smythe Paseo Stage on Saturday at 7pm with Ken Crowell's Ohlone College Big Band.

For early risers who like their jazz acoustic and melodically adventurous, the Brad Mehldau Trio is a must. Mehldau, who plays the Southwest Airlines Main Stage at noon Sunday, is one of jazz's more engaging young pianists in an age marked by a glut of keyboard talent. Mehldau, who's only 27, spent two years with tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman in a rhythm section with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade. In other words, he knows all about what it means to swing.

With his own group, a trio featuring the inventive L.A. bassist Darek Oles and the supple drummer Jorge Rossy, Mehldau takes a very different approach from Redman's. Rather than developing a series of grooves and improvising over rhythmic figures, Mehldau lets the music evolve organically, often starting with a standard tune and working with a fragment of the melody.

"We're not really of the Oscar Peterson or Ahmad Jamal school of having hits or cues or arrangements," Mehldau says from his home in L.A., where he's lived for the past two years. "I love that stuff, but I never willfully set out to do anything. With the trio we're all trying to stay out of each other's way and not let the intellect get too involved and then things sort of happen naturally."

Mehldau comes to San Jose having just finished a week-long engagement at New York's Village Vanguard, where he was taping the follow-up to The Art of the Trio, Vol. 1 (Warner Bros.), featuring Rossy and his regular bassist, Larry Grenadier. Covering a few of his own tunes, Lennon and McCartney's "Blackbird" and standards such as "Blame It on My Youth" and "I Fall in Love Too Easily," it's a beautiful album; the trio expands upon the melodies in an abstract but swinging approach at times reminiscent of Bill Evans.

"If we're playing a standard, we take one idea from the melody and really mess around with it," Mehldau says. "It's a really organic process where you have one germ and it grows and grows and that's how you get your continuity and cohesiveness, as opposed to doing it through an arrangement."

This Zen approach to improvising doesn't mean the trio just makes it all up as it goes along. Instead, Mehldau puts a premium on interaction, so that by playing together and developing an intuitive rapport, each member of the trio can participate in directing the music's flow.

"One of the few things I tell Darek is that he really doesn't need to play the standard walking-bass role in the trio," Mehldau explains. "It's not that I think that's outmoded or passé, it just seems more natural for him to develop a bass part. By the same token, I encourage Jorge to not feel like he has to play the high hat on the standard two and four [beats]. If you have that freedom, all these things can come about, and it can be very exciting."

Another up-and-coming pianist featured at the festival is Bill Cunliffe, winner of the 1989 Thelonious Monk Institute's competition, who plays the O'Connor Hospital Museum Stage at 2:30pm on Sunday in a duo with the pure-toned flutist Holly Hofmann. Their new CD, Just Duet (Azica), is an eclectic session covering modern jazz tunes, standards, Brazilian music and classical compositions.

Hofmann, who has worked with such jazz luminaries as saxophonist James Moody, trombonist Slide Hampton and guitarist Mundell Lowe and recorded with bassist Ray Brown, knows how to caress a melody as well as swing with conviction.

AMONG THE festival's headliners, the most exciting act is Dianne Reeves (Main Stage, Sunday at 6pm), a singer with tremendous chops and charisma. After excursions into R&B and pop world music, Reeves has returned to her jazz roots just when it seemed that the age of the jazz diva had come to an end. With her rich, dazzling voice Reeves can scat with authority, though sometimes she relies on the technique too much.

At her best, Reeves sings with an intimate emotional knowledge of a lyric, infusing her material with her been-there-and-survived point of view. She's the kind of performer who can make a jazz festival stage feel like an intimate nightclub.
By Andy Gilbert

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From the August 7-13, 1997 issue of Metro.

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