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Jazz Review

Connecting Jazz With Hip-Hop, Pop and African Rhythms


SAN FRANCISCO — In its continuing quest to discover and showcase alternative jazz per-spectives, Monday night's San Francisco Jazz Festival program--the first of the new week--came up with two intriguing, and quite different, views of the changing contemporary jazz scene.

The event, which took place in the attractive environs of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theatre, was titled "Jazz in Transit," and featured trumpeter Russell Gunn's Ethnomusicology and saxophonist Trevor Watts' Moire Music Group.

Watts, a veteran of the jazz avant-garde years and a founder of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, offered his efforts to find the overlapping linkages between jazz and other musical forms, especially African rhythms. And his group--Colin McKenzie, bass; Marc Parnell, drums; Roberto Pla, percussion; and Paapa J. Mensah, voice and African percussion--was largely successful in doing so.

Alternating between soprano and alto saxophones, Watts soloed with an edgy sound and a spontaneous spirit reminiscent of Ornette Coleman. McKenzie, playing the difficult role of providing the metric anchor as well as an extensive harmonic foundation, delivered on both counts, his vocalized melodies and brisk harmonic strumming filling the open middle of the music with surprisingly rich, dense textures, and Parnell and Pla provided strong undercurrent of support.

But it was Mensah, a Ghanaian, who nearly stole the show, singing in a sweet tenor voice, bringing a kaleidoscopic array of percussion sounds and patterns to the music, and adding a much-needed visual charisma to the performance.

Gunn's group, Ethnomusicology, took a far different tack, following the course taken by, among others, Branford Marsalis' Buckshot LeFonque in attempting to blend contemporary pop rhythms with jazz. And, as with his predecessors, the efforts often floundered on the shoals of the fundamental differences between the two musics.

Ethnomusicology's lineup included some first-rate jazz artists--Gunn, of course, tenor saxophonist Gregory Tardy, trombonist Andre Hayward and pianist James Hurt among them. Their soloing, in a program that included an eccentric rendering of "Caravan" as well as Gunn originals and a brisk line from Tardy, was exceptional, some of the best work heard thus far in the festival.

Unfortunately, their efforts were too often undercut by Gunn's apparent insistence upon having the rhythm section--supplemented by the turntables of DJ Apollo--play unrelenting hip-hop and funk rhythms.

The result was a bizarre combination of first-rate jazz soloing underscored by what was, in essence, a dumbing-down of the sophisticated rhythm engine that drives the entire jazz experience.

The contrast was especially apparent in the few moments, especially during one of Gunn's solos, when drummer Woody Williams switched to a straight-ahead jazz surge, and the music suddenly came alive. Ethnomusicology's fine players deserved more of such uncluttered opportunities to display their wares.

The San Francisco Jazz Festival continues through Sunday with appearances by organist Barbara Dennerlein, Bobby McFerrin, Bud Shank, Eliades Ochoa, Cubanismo!, McCoy Tyner, Robert Cray, Toots Thielemans and numerous others.

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