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Jazz Review

San Francisco Festival Hits Right Notes With High-Profile Talent


SAN FRANCISCO — The weather was perfect, with plenty of crisp, sunny days and clear, moonlit nights. The music was filled with diversity and excitement. The crowds were enthusiastic.

It was, in short, the opening days of the San Francisco Jazz Festival. And, once again, the week-and-a-half-long event certified its reputation as one of the country's most entertaining music events.

There was plenty of high-profile talent. Singer Al Jarreau opened the festival on Thursday night. He was followed on Friday and Saturday by the Mingus Big Band, Brazilian singer-songwriter Ivan Lins, Diana Krall, Dave Frishberg and Fred Hersch.

It's not difficult to book name performers, of course. The right schedule and the right compensation can attract an eminently promotable festival lineup almost anywhere. What is more difficult--and what the San Francisco event is doing with great consistency--is placing the right performer in the right venue in the right thematic setting.

Most of the large events--the Jarreau, Mingus, Krall and Frishberg concerts--took place in the Masonic Auditorium, a large, amiable setting with an apron stage that places virtually every seat in relatively close contact to the performers. Typically, that close contact made for a sense of intimacy that is rarely achieved in the large settings--the Hollywood Bowl, for one--often used for festival-style programs.

Each of the artists made the most of the enhanced audience interaction. The Mingus Big Band, arguably one of the most extraordinary large all-star assemblages in the country, played its Mingus repertoire on Friday with great subtlety and imagination. Blessed with a lineup of saxophonists that included Craig Handy, Bobby Watson and special guest John Handy, the unit was particularly effective with such Mingus classics as "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" and "Reincarnation of a Lovebird."

Saxophonist Charles McPherson, a former Mingus sideman, also played a few tunes in the show with his quartet. But the real secret weapon was Mingus Amongus, a San Francisco-based ensemble that swung through Mingus' music with a compilation of first-rate jazz playing, dancers and rap artists.

Krall's impressive set, largely limited to the program she has been reworking for the past year or two, moved from the romping "I'm an Errand Girl for Rhythm" to a tenderly intimate "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance" and her now-signature rendering of Frishberg's "Peel Me a Grape." Best of all, however, was her risky but ultimately successful effort to reclaim "I've Got You Under My Skin" from Frank Sinatra via a slow, sensuously insinuating bossa nova rhythm. Frishberg, opening Friday's show for Krall, was his characteristically whimsical self, especially during a wry revisit to his classic "Van Lingle Mungo," a song whose lyrics consist solely of a nostalgic rendering of the names of baseball players from the '30s and '40s.


Other venues in other parts of town provided equally compatible programming for their chosen schedules. On Friday night, in the chamber music environs of the elegant Herbst Theatre, Ivan Lins, fresh from an appearance at UCLA's Royce Hall the previous night, once again revealed the lush harmonies and soaring melodies that make him such a favorite with jazz audiences.

On Saturday afternoon, across town in the picturesque hilltop setting of Lincoln Park, pianist Fred Hersch performed a solo set in the small but acoustically superb Florence Gould Theatre. Again, the match between performer and place was perfect, as Hersch offered a recital that moved easily from Alec Wilder to Thelonious Monk. At almost the same time, L.A.'s favorite conga player, Poncho Sanchez, was offering a stirring set of free Latin jazz before a colorful and eminently enthusiastic crowd at Ghirardelli Square. The sense of easygoing openness, of happy interaction between musicians and audience, provided a perfect symbol for why the San Francisco Jazz Festival is such a consistently appealing event.

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