The Memorial Day long weekend was an amazing one for jazz fans on both sides of the Bay, featuring musicians young and old from a variety of styles. I started off the weekend with a trip to Yoshi’s Oakland on Friday, a venue with consistently high-quality international acts on a student budget, making it well worth the trip across the Bay.
This weekend, Yoshi’s Oakland hosted the internationally acclaimed saxophonist Joshua Redman, who is also a local North Berkeley resident, with his collaborative acoustic jazz project James Farm: bassist Matt Penman, pianist Aaron Parks and drummer Eric Harland. The group plays all original music from what Redman calls their “greatest and only album,” also titled “James Farm,” with compositions by everyone in the band. And it’s all very contemporary and hip.
Playing to a sold-out house, James Farm performed a fantastic opening set. Though it was clear from the start that Redman, switching between soprano and alto sax, is the standout star of the group, by the third or fourth number the group was starting to really come together with four intricate parts forming one cohesive unit. On Park’s “Kronos,” the piece started off with just the drums and piano playing together; Harland’s rhythm was simple enough but placed interestingly on unexpected off-beats, giving it a lot of flavor. The group then worked to slowly build up the different parts, adding each one at a time – something that the Dave Holland Quintet is also genius at – which lets the audience follow each layer and how they are all playing off one another. It was a good change, and a permanent one, from the blurriness of the earlier pieces, which lacked the clarity of the second half of the set.
Redman’s modern blues tune, “Star-Crossed,” was the unequivocal highlight of the evening: As one of the richest compositions on their album, it afforded the opportunity for some vibrant and collaborative improvisation, rather than the old-school habit of just trading off solos. This was also the source of one of Redman’s very best improvisations: enthralling, beautiful and sure to keep your foot tapping.
Though Penman and Parks are both good musicians, it was Harland who proved the most impressive rising star. His composition “I-10” was the greatest showcase for his talents, starting with a drum solo that was on par with something you might expect from Jack DeJohnette or, more recently, Nate Smith: multiple parts each clearly defined, a miraculously present bass line and great use of pitch and silences. As he was starting out the piece, I kept looking over to Penman for the bass line and had to remind myself that only Harland was playing. The group certainly earned their standing ovation and sold-out shows last weekend.
On Saturday, old-school jazz pianists Mulgrew Miller and Kenny Barron played a duo concert in Herbst Theater as part of the SFJazz Spring Season. Both have played with their fair share of jazz greats: Miller with Art Blakey, Duke Ellington and Tony Williams, and Barron with Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Ron Carter. Both play stride piano, and their duets followed a similar, if sometime tiresome piano: Start with the melody, trade off solos seamlessly while strongly supporting the other with creative chords and backup, then do a bit of call and response with a few bars each, possibly throw in some collaborative improvisation and then return to the main theme again. The structure was less apparent in the first half of the concert, in part because of the atrocious acoustics in Herbst Theater: All the sounds blurred together, as if each musician was liberally using the pedal even when his feet were nowhere near it.
Both Miller and Barron played one solo piece, and that’s when things started to really pick up. They shifted over to standards that you might associate with Oscar Peterson, with a heavy focus on Thelonius Monk with “Monk’s Dream” and an amazing encore of “Blue Monk.” The clarity of these pieces helped overcome the poor acoustics barrier and helped let the audience in on just what they were doing. Throughout the show, Miller and Barron were each perfectly attuned to the other’s playing: There may have been two Yamaha pianos and two performers, but it mostly sounded like four hands controlled by the same mind playing together. This is not to say that they didn’t each introduce new ideas or build on one another’s work – they each did both – but that they were perfectly synchronized, and that’s quite a feat.
The last concert of the weekend featured the biggest celebrity – the television actor Hugh Laurie with his Copper Bottom Band – catered to the widest audience and was ultimately the least impressive musically. The show at the Great American Music Hall, one of the first stops on a world tour to promote Laurie’s excellent album “Let them Talk,” was certainly well-attended with an eager audience – there were lineups around the block an hour before the doors opened – and we all went home satisfied with a fun evening out. Laurie is, after all, a consummate performer, and while his musical prowess does not match Miller or Barron, his charm and humor and the excellent Copper Bottom Band more than made up for this.
Laurie is proving to be the Norah Jones of the blues: blues for the pop music fan with relatively short pieces, lyrics and a low emphasis on improvisation. Though this made for a rich album, the gaps in musicianship were much more readily apparent in the concert. And yet, I’d chalk most of that up to Laurie’s rookie status. He is still relatively new to the world of being a musician, and I think he hasn’t quite got the confidence yet to really show off his chops; it wasn’t until the last few pieces of the concert that we really started to hear him play, and the majority of it was scripted or hiding behind lavish ornamentation. He really can play, and it’s not just technical proficiency but a knack for musical expression; it just hasn’t been fully honed yet for a live performance.
That being said, the live performance added a lot. There was an immense amount of energy onstage and from the packed crowd, which gave the music an extra jolt of immediacy. The band’s repertoire extended beyond the album, and the live performance afforded the opportunity for some wonderful improvisation. Kevin Breit on guitar played consistently awesome, rocking and complex solos throughout, and Vincent Henry on horns also provided some great improvisation. Jay Belarose on drums and David Pelch on bass gave solid back-up, giving the band a strong rhythmic background to really keep things swinging. It was also just joyous to watch Hugh Laurie with a huge grin plastered on his face, enjoying absolutely every minute of being on stage with this band. While the concert was a whole lot of fun, it wasn’t particularly musically challenging or stimulating, something Laurie has been warning fans about all along with a series of overly critical, self-deprecating comments. But it’s still very early days in Laurie’s musical career: With enough practice, I imagine he’s going to be quite the force to reckon with in pop jazz.