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Jazz in the City

Cassandra Wilson
New Moon Daughter: Cassandra Wilson

Cassandra Wilson and Danilo Perez dominate the opening weekend of the San Francisco Jazz Festival

By Nicky Baxter

The San Francisco Jazz Festival (Oct. 22-Nov. 2) is the finest gathering of the improvisational-music tribes west of the Mississippi. The reason is simple: the people responsible for scheduling the acts aren't afraid of taking chances. For them, risky business is good business. Their reckoning is right on.

Since its debut 15 years ago, the festival has played host to jazz's best players. Everyone from free-music front-runners Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman to post-bebop pioneers David Murray and the late Tony Williams have wowed audiences there. Not that the presenters are stuffy purists. Guitarist Bill Frisell, who appeared two years ago, isn't a jazz player per se, but he is as much a renegade as Coleman and Taylor. And the Bulgarian Women's Choir have nothing at all to do with jazz--except that its members can blow down the house.

This year's festival offers a gourmet feast of sounds not likely to be found elsewhere, from clarinetist Don Byron's "Bug Music" to Ruth Brown's gut-bucket blues to "Brazil on the Bay," featuring the vocal/guitar duo Adriana Morena and Carlos Oliviera. The opening weekend alone is worth the price of admission, with singer supreme Cassandra Wilson (Oct. 24 at 8pm at the Masonic Auditorium) and Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez (Oct. 25 at 2pm at the Florence Gould Theater) leading the way.

Wilson's Way

No one in improvisational vocal music does it like Wilson. Even aficionados who'd just as soon listen to chalkboard screech than allow some pseudochanteuse send them to snoozeland with Billie Holiday impressions have found themselves fawning over the Jackson, Miss., native's sultry stylings.

Wilson is unafraid to take chances, to rewrite the rules. Picture a daredevil acrobat as a singer, and you have an idea of where she's taking you. Unabashedly eclectic, the singer wraps her larynx around everything from "traditional" jazz numbers to pop ditties to soul ballads. Blessed with a voice that can stretch notes like taffy--or snap like a whip-Wilson is in a league of her own.

Though she had appeared on nine albums as a leader and another dozen as featured vocalist with Steve Coleman and the Five Elements, she didn't really make her mark until 1993's Blue Light 'Til Dawn, a work of stark beauty. Her revision of Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey" is utterly transfixing, as is her self-penned tribute to filmmaker Haile Gerima's Sankofa. Still, as much as Blue Light satisfied, the follow-up, New Moon Daughter (Blue Note), stands out as the diva's finest offering to date.

In addition to five originals, the disc evinces her ongoing interest in remaking the works of other masters, in this case country bluesman Son House, C&W cool papa Hank Williams, Billie Holiday and grunge guru Neil Young. The attempt to embrace such a wide world of music is indicative of Wilson's peerless catholicism; that she pulls it off is testimony to dreadlocked vocalist's astounding gifts.

Click here for more informationListen to Cassandra Wilson
now at CD Universe

Panamonk Man

Listen closely to Panamonk, and it's clear that Perez is another sort of songbird. The pianist can be heard humming while simultaneously hammering out odd-metered rhythms and grooves. As the title indicates, Perez is a Monk man--as in Thelonious. No surprise here; close to a decade ago, the pianist was selected as a semifinalist in the Thelonious Monk Competition held in Washington, D.C.

But for all that, Perez is no musical clone. Like Wilson, Perez is open to interpreting the works of others yet is also a capable tunesmith in his own right, as Panamonk's "Hot Bean Strut" shows. Though heavily rhythmic, "Strut" also boasts a slyly eccentric melody.

On "Bright Mississippi." the pianist transports us much further South than the Mason-Dixon line. Even Monk classics are not exempt from the musician's African/Latin excursions. Whatever he's playing, the man's right hand is hard at work extracting thunderclaps from his instrument at will.

Click here for more informationListen to Danilo Perez
now at CD Universe


For schedule details, check the festival web site.

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