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Jazz Review

Extraordinary Acoustics Shape San Francisco Festival Concert


SAN FRANCISCO — It's Sunday afternoon, and the wail of a saxophone drifts through thesounds of Market Street traffic. In Union Square, rhythmic percussion patterns cut across the rumble of the cable cars and the conversational buzz of the pedestrians.

As it turns out, it isn't exactly a saxophone, but the sound of an enterprising street musician performing, amazingly, on an electronic wind instrument accompanied by his own preset rhythm loops. And the percussion, far from a standard drum set, consists of various plastic pots and metal pans, played with remarkable adroitness by yet another musician working the crowded sidewalks.

Both performers echo, in an unexpectedly direct fashion, the Sunday goings-on in the San Francisco Jazz Festival--especially the dual performances by saxophonists Joe Lovano and Greg Osby in an evening performance at Grace Cathedral.

The cathedral has become a regular setting for jazz festival performances--by Joshua Redman, Charlie Haden and Dewey Redman, among many others. Its appeal traces in part to sheer visual splendor, but largely to its extraordinary acoustics, which provide musicians with a long, resonant echo.

Both artists played solo sets, Osby on alto saxophone, Lovano switching between tenor and soprano saxophones, E flat alto clarinet and cymbals and drum. Lovano positioned his program to make maximum use of the room's potential, playing pieces that allowed him to, in effect, interact with his own sounds, sometimes combining them into long, reverberant textures, sometimes blending closely related notes into turbulent dissonance. His soprano saxophone was especially effective, its timbre seeming to interact especially well with the cathedral's inherent tuning. And Lovano enhanced many of the passages by adding the ringing, shimmering sounds of a variety of cymbals, occasionally playing one of his horns in close proximity, generating even more unusual textures from the combined saxophone-cymbal acoustic interaction.

Osby seemed less comfortable in the setting. His quick-fingered virtuosity, so impressive in group playing, was less effective in the cathedral's resonant chamber. Too often, he interfered with an individual line's potential for lush reverberation by suddenly interrupting it with a quick, intrusive series of runs. In any other location, his performance would have been an impressive solo outing; in this setting, it never quite achieved its potential impact.

Earlier in the day, the festival--as it occasionally does--unveiled a gifted new young talent. In this case, a 13-year-old guitarist named Julian Lage. Playing with startling maturity, and accompanied by his teacher, guitarist Randy Vincent, Lage--who already has performed with players such as Pat Metheny, Carlos Santana and David Grisman--showed all the signs of potential stardom.

On the same bill, guitarist Russell Malone demonstrated his considerable versatility, moving easily from blues to straight ahead to smooth jazz, and doing it all with his inimitable sense of humor and his articulate musical craftsmanship.

At the end of the day, one couldn't help but wonder about those fluent, communicative street musicians, how such skilled players can wind up playing for coins, and whether the festival might not do well to find a way to bring this San Francisco asset into its otherwise far-reaching programming.

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