Jazz players meld the sounds 'round the corner with those 'round the world
Jazz has always been about fusing rather than fusion. But there's a new generation of improvisational players from around the world who are effortlessly blending wide-ranging cultural and generational ideas in their music. These artists are equally conversant in Ben Webster, Kanye West, and Fela Kuti. They might cover Coltrane and Radiohead, but using contemporary Western instruments. It's jazz with a global scope, modern sensibility, and an intimate, personal feel.
One musician who is naturally engaging a world of influences in his music is Puerto Ricoborn saxophonist David Sanchez. When he brings his new sextet to the Herbst Theatre June 13 to debut music from his just-released album, Cultural Survival (Concord), Sanchez will cap an expansive run of so-called multilingual jazz artists coming through the Bay Area. Preceding Sanchez at venues across the region are saxophonist Charles Lloyd, pianist Marc Cary, bassist Esperanza Spalding, and pianist Edward Simon, who are all bringing variations on the theme of modern jazz as a genre informed by worldwide cultures.
It all starts next week with SFJAZZ's "Miles from India" concert at the Palace of Fine Arts, a live presentation of the recent Four Quarters album of the same name. Producer Bob Belden and Indian keyboardist and co-arranger Louiz Banks reworked the music of Miles Davis and recorded it with such Davis alumni as bassists Ron Carter, Michael Henderson, and Marcus Miller; keyboardists Chick Corea, Adam Holzman, and Robert Irving III; drummers Jimmy Cobb and Lenny White; and such Indian musicians as Ravi Chari on sitar, Vikku Vinayakram on ghatam, and V. Selvaganesh on khanjira. The composer himself used sitar and tabla on numerous sessions throughout the 1970s, when he began making funkier and more layered, open-ended music.
Davis and numerous jazz musicians before him from Duke Ellington and Yusef Lateef to Randy Weston and John Handy integrated musical elements from non-Western cultures into their work. So it's not surprising that a younger player like Sanchez, who is equally at home improvising with Latin jazz piano legend Eddie Palmieri as he is touring with guitarist Pat Metheny, would meld ethnic nuances of his Caribbean heritage with a postmodern jazz sensibility.
Sanchez's Cultural Survival is a cycle of seven original songs and one Thelonious Monk ballad. The disc culminates in the 20-minute "La Leyenda del Canaveral," inspired by a poem written by Sanchez's sister Margarita about African and Caribbean sugar cane plantation workers. It's a relatively new and spare, though lyrically rhythmic, sound for Sanchez, forged during a three-year immersion in African folkloric recordings from Tanzania, Cameroon, and the Congo, and his impromptu tour with Metheny. "Doing the tour with Pat was really a confirmation for me that there are different sounds out there," Sanchez said from his Atlanta home. The saxophonist has mainly played with a pianist but now works with guitarist Lage Lund in his band.
"In some ways there is more space for me there," he added.
Also exploring new concepts is veteran saxophonist Lloyd, who performs at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival May 31 with his Indian-musicinspired Sangam Trio, which includes percussionist Zakir Hussain and drummer Eric Harland. The band uses its ethnic edges as stepping stones. "It's really what propels the music," Harland said of the intuitively improvisational trio during an SFJAZZ rehearsal in the city.
Venezuelan pianist Edward Simon also mixes new and old approaches: he studied classical piano at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and jazz at the Manhattan School of Music before joining trumpeter Terence Blanchard's band. His new Ensemble Venezuela, which plays the Herbst Theatre June 8, is a sterling gathering of major young players including Mark Turner on saxophone, Marco Granados on flute, Aquiles Báez on cuatro, Ben Street on bass, and Adam Cruz on drums. Báez will also perform with his own band while the local VNote Ensemble (formerly the Snake Trio) offers its take on jazz and Venezuelan traditional sounds.
Such explorations vary conventional presentations and inject unexpected aural flavors. "Jazz is one of the most immediately gratifying art forms there is because it's spontaneous development," pianist Marc Cary explained from New York. "It documents a moment, and that's the moment you want people to hear."
Cary's Focus Trio performs in Healdsburg June 5. His partners onstage are Bay Area musicians Sameer Gupta on drums and tablas and David Ewell on bass. "Sameer is from India and David is from China," said Cary. "I didn't pick them because of that. I play with them because they're good, but they're bringing that too." On his 2006 album Focus (Motema), Cary wanted to get out of the standard chorus-solo-chorus cycle that has sometimes straitjacketed jazz. "I like continuous movement, a straight line, and I like to color that line," Cary mused. Gupta cowrote one song with Cary and contributed the reflective ballad "Taiwa," and his tablas close out the last three Cary originals with a distinctive flourish.
Cary played behind the übervocalist and band leader Betty Carter and has toured with hip-hop vocalist Erykah Badu, whose influences find their way into his work. "If you're really going to play this music in today's times, you have to bring in elements of the past, the present, and what you consider to be the future," Cary said.
That future is now with 23-year-old bassist Esperanza Spalding. The Portland, Ore., native, who graduated from and now teaches at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, recorded her 2006 full-length Junjo (Ayva) with two Cuba-born colleagues from the school: pianist Aruán Ortiz and drummer Francisco Mela. Their rhythmic approaches subtly imbue the recording's sound as Spalding sings wordless, hornlike runs in a bright, fluttery alto. Her latest album, Esperanza (Heads Up), includes flamenco guitar virtuoso Niño Josele, drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernández, and saxophonist Donald Harrison. She brings her new band to Yoshi's in Oakland June 12.
Why have all these players connected with sounds so far afield? The world has not gotten smaller it's just better connected. Through technology even the most obscure genres find new and far-flung listeners. The communal spirit informing jazz performance and appreciation also transcends differences: jazz musicians have to be open; otherwise they can't play the music. "At the end of the day, jazz is about how you relate to things happening at the moment," Sanchez said. He heard a reality in the African tribal drumming music he listened to and wanted to bring it to his own playing. "You have this feeling when you hear it that the music is like water or air for them."
"MILES FROM INDIA"
Sat/31, 8 p.m., $25$56
Palace of Fine Arts Theatre
3301 Lyon, SF
CHARLES LLOYD QUARTET AND LLOYD'S SANGAM TRIO
Sat/31, 7:30 p.m., $45<\d>$70
Sonoma Country Day School, Santa Rosa
MARC CARY'S FOCUS TRIO
June 5, 7 and 9 p.m., $26
231 Center, Healdsburg
EDWARD SIMON AND THE ENSEMBLE VENEZUELA
With Aquiles Báez Ensemble and VNote Ensemble
June 8, 7 p.m., $25$56
401 Van Ness, SF
June 12, 8 and 10 p.m., $10$16
510 Embarcadero West, Oakl
DAVID SANCHEZ SEXTET
June 13, 8 p.m., $25$56
401 Van Ness, SF