Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Big Band Traditions, From Basie to Monk

For the third week Summer Sessions 2015, a week devoted to the enduring vitality of the Big Band tradition, we present four of the finest large ensembles working in jazz today – bands with ties to the past, who are standard bearers of the Big Band sound in the 21st Century. 2015 GRAMMY winner Gordon Goodwin counts Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Buddy Rich among his idols, and his Big Phat Band boasts a number of superb instrumentalists including longtime Chick Corea saxophonist Eric Marienthal and trumpeter Wayne Bergeron, known for his work with the late Maynard Ferguson. The Big Phat Band's focus is as a laboratory for Goodwin's own inventive compositions.
Tommy Igoe is clearly one of the drumming world’s major forces, a virtuosic musician and educator whose influential method books have inspired thousands of aspiring percussionists. His masterful Groove Conspiracy band takes on the music of Steely Dan for this week’s performance, joined by Steely Dan guitarist Drew Zingg.
Two of this weeks bands, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and John Beasley’s MONK’estra, directly reference the illustrious history of large group jazz through experience and inspiration.
John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton, Jeff Clayton
The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra is led by siblings John and Jeff Clayton (on bass and woodwinds respectively) and drummer Jeff Hamilton, all three of whom came through the iconic big band of jazz giant Count Basie. For each, working with a larger-than-life figure like Basie was an experience that shaped their careers and informed their development as world-class instrumentalists, bandleaders and arrangers. In an interview with blogger Tsvete Tyuleva, the bassist said, “I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from Count Basie. It would just take forever… It was always lessons, not only about music, but about life.”
Pianist, composer and arranger John Beasley began as a true prodigy, penning an arrangement for the
John Beasley - photo by Richard Schoenberg
legendary Stan Kenton Orchestra before attending high school. From that rather auspicious start, Beasley has had a truly staggering career packed with highlights including tours with Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard and Christian McBride, music direction with Steely Dan and Queen Latifah, and composition for television series Cheers, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Family Ties. His 15-piece all-star big band, MONK’estra, naturally pays tribute to the inimitable Thelonious Monk with fresh, innovative arrangements of Monk’s signature compositions.

Playlist: The Big Band

SFJAZZ celebrates the enduring vitality and flexibility of the Big Band format this week with four of the finest large ensembles in jazz: Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band, Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, John Beasley's Monk'estra and Tommy Igoe's Groove Conspiracy.

Here's a curated playlist of just a few of our favorite big band recordings!

Learn more about SFJAZZ's Big Bands Week!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

SFJAZZ 5 Spot: Five Things to Know About Chavela Vargas

Now that you've learned about the singer paying tribute to Chavela Vargas, let's highlight five interesting facts about the Legendary Ranchera singer herself:

1.) Chavela Vargas was the first woman to perform the hyper-masculine, ranchera song style famously refusing to change the pronouns in the love songs about women

2.) Famous muse of filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. "I don't think there is a stage big enough in this world for Chavela," wrote the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, who featured her music in many of his films. Huffington Post; she was also a friend of painters Frieda Kahlo, and Diego Rivera, and of writer Federico Garcia Lorca

3.) Came out publicly at 81 years old in her autobiography “If You Want to Know About My Past”

4.) Recorded 80 albums

5.) Received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 from the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences

For more information, visit: Tania Libertad at SFJAZZ

Monday, July 20, 2015

SFJAZZ 5 Spot: Five Things to Know About Tania Libertad

  1. She was honored with the title of Comendadora by the Peruvian government and named to the Order of Rio Branco by the Brazilian government for her contributions to music.
  2. She was named a UNESCO Ambassador for Peace.
  3. She won the Latin GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 for her musical legacy.
  4. For this concert, she is paying tribute to the legendary Chavela Vargas – a pioneering Mexican singer who broke down long-established gender roles and liberated the traditional Mexican ranchera from its male-only history.
  5. Libertad immigrated to Mexico from Peru in the name of creative acceptance, just as Vargas did from her native Costa Rica a generation earlier.
And one more for good measure:
  1. In describing his introduction to Libertad’s music, Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago said, “The first time I heard Tania Libertad sing, it was a revelation from on high… … each note touched a string in my soul until I was completely dazzled.”
For more information, visit: Tania Libertad at SFJAZZ

Friday, July 17, 2015

Five Things You Should Know About Catherine Russell

Catherine Russell – photo by Nancy Carbonaro

  1. For her four-night run of shows in the Joe Henderson Lab (July 16 –19), Russell will perform music by the great Louis Armstrong. Russell’s father, Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong’s longtime collaborator and musical director.
  2. She won a GRAMMY for her featured contributions to the soundtrack album for the hit HBO series Boardwalk Empire.
  3. She has performed and recorded with David Bowie, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Cyndi Lauper, Michael Feinstein and many others.
  4. In his review of Russell’s 2006 debut album, Cat, legendary jazz critic Nat Hentoff said, “It’s a delight to hear the real thing in Catherine Russell.”
  5. Her newest album, Bring It Back, received a Five Star review from DownBeat magazine – their highest rating.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Great Americas Songbook: Week 1

Summer Sessions 2015 begins tonight! The first four weeks are devoted to our ongoing summer series “Great Americas Songbook.” Devoted to the rich traditions of music spanning the entirety of the North and South American continents, Great Americas Songbook expands the concept of “The Great American Songbook” to include artists from all the Americas. Individual weeks highlight the American popular song, the music of Mexico, the American Big Band, and the equatorial area stretching from Central and South America to the Caribbean.

This first week focuses on the breadth of American popular song, from the New Orleans tradition of Louis Armstrong to the social consciousness of Bob Dylan. Kicking things off is Ann Hampton Callaway – a Tony Award winner and one of the truly great living interpreters of the trove of popular songs written between the 1920s and 1950s, commonly called the Great American Songbook. Tonight, Callaway presents her tribute to one of her primary influences and one of the truly iconic jazz singers, Sarah Vaughan. Buy Tickets

Called “one of the outstanding singers of our time” by The Wall Street Journal, vocalist Catherine Russell pays tribute to the legendary Louis Armstrong, for whom her father, Luis Russell, was a longtime collaborator and musical director. Russell won a GRAMMY for her contribution to the soundtrack for the smash HBO series Boardwalk Empire, and her newest session, Bring It Back, explores the rich trove of music developed through her father’s collaboration with Armstrong. She'll be performing Thursday through Sunday in the Joe Henderson Lab. Buy Tickets

Kim Nalley is a rare artist with the dramatic presence, stylistic breadth and technical skill to pay a fitting tribute to the legendary Billie Holiday, portraying Holiday in stage plays and in her own signature show, The Heart of Lady Day. Her sold out tribute to Holiday on Friday will reveal Nalley as blues-loving jazz singer with a luxuriously rich voice, performing the music of Lady Day in her own inimitable style.

Paula West is, quite simply, the finest jazz-cabaret singer around. All of her albums deserve pride of place in any discerning listener's library.” So says JazzTimes magazine about the San Francisco jazz treasure, whose tribute to the immortal songwriter Bob Dylan is sold out Saturday night. With this celebration of rock icon Dylan, Paula West embraces this most American of voices, making his iconic words and melodies undeniably her own.

The final night of this first Summer Sessions week brings a tribute to the great Nat King Cole by his enormously gifted younger brother, Freddy Cole, accompanied by his swinging, telepathic quartet. The New York Times described Freddy this way: “Freddy has an impeccable sense of swing…he is, overall, the most maturely expressive male jazz singer of his generation, if not the best alive.” He performs in Miner Auditorium on Sunday. Buy Tickets

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

2015-16 Season Now On Sale To Public

SFJAZZ's 2015-16 Season is NOW ON SALE to the Public!

Tickets are available at, on the SFJAZZ Mobile App (iPhone/Android), by phone and in person at the SFJAZZ Center Box Office.

Highlights include Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Brian Wilson, Brad Mehldau, Eric Harland, Esperanza Spalding, Kenny Barron, Chris Botti, Terence Blanchard's Champion: An Opera In Jazz, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Hiromi, The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, SFJAZZ Collective, Zakir Hussain, Merle Haggard, Maceo Parker, Cassandra Wilson, Cecile McLorin Salvant & many more!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Los Van Van 2.0 - Cuba's Rolling Stones Return to San Francisco

Friday August 14th, 2015, 8pm at Davies Symphony Hall. That's where anyone who loves Cuban music needs to be, and will be, when Los Van Van comes to town as part of SFJAZZ Summer Sessions. For those of us who have followed the decades-long trajectory of this musical institution, we all know this appearance will be different given the absence of founder-director Juan Formell, whose death last May stunned the island nation as well as music lovers around the globe. And while we lament the passing of a legend, we celebrate the transformation of this powerhouse ensemble as they continue to inspire and reinvent themselves under the stewardship of drummer/percussionist (and Juan's son), Samuel Formell.

The group's signature sound is an amalgam of traditional Cuban rhythms mixed with a tinge of American-infused pop and rock, but that feeble description in no way defines the relentless, hip-churning, sonic experience delivered by this band. Trombones and violins? Who DOES that? In the first incarnation of the ensemble, Formell dared to introduce that most American (aka "Imperialist") of sounds, the electric guitar. And to top it off, the drum set - typically not included in the Cuban dance music triumvirate of congas, timbales and bongos - was stripped of its cymbals at first so as to not incur the displeasure of government officials; any resemblance to jazz or rock could result in criminal prosecution, and Formell was well aware of the risks involved in assimilating anything remotely American. He called his new sound "songo" - a mix of Cuban son and "go-go" music, and what made it tick was precisely how much it flirted with rock or pop while remaining truly Cuban at heart. Over the years he added synthesizers, drum pads and other digital accessories, but the foundation of Los Van Van has always been the charanga orchestra, an acoustic instrumentation consisting of flute, strings and rhythm section with Cuban percussion.

Juan Formell receiving a Latin Grammy Award in 2013.
Like many popular rock bands - from the Dead and the Stones to any group with a fan base that spans nearly five decades - Los Van Van, founded in 1969, has seen its share of musical as well as historical transformation since the band first burst on Cuba's music scene. From the Cold War to the recent shift in US policy toward the island, Los Van Van has singlehandedly chronicled the daily lives of the Cuban people, their hopes, their dreams and aspirations, as well as their frustrations. Every song in the group's repertoire is punctuated with real-world situations, primarily penned by the late Formell in an enchanting recipe of groove-laden storytelling with multiple punches. It's not easy to think about getting down on the dance floor to songs about food shortages, transportation problems, blackouts or black market dealings, or more recently, prostitution, homophobia and drug addiction. But somehow, Los Van Van makes it work. They are, after all, El Tren (the train), an unrelenting wall of sound that has transcended generation in Cuban popular culture. Like a locomotive on steroids, this group has found a loyal following around the globe, regardless of political leanings, and if you climb on board this August 14th when they take the stage, you will witness firsthand how intoxicating it is to be a "Vanvanero" (or Vanvanera), a diehard fan. Davies may be a hall designed for symphony orchestra, but I guarantee it will feel more like a steamy Havana nightclub, so get your dancing shoes ready!

Read more on Los Van Van and the legacy of Juan Formell in Billboard Magazine.