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ALL THAT JAZZ

S.F. Festival revels in the offbeat

October 19, 2002|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

At one of the recent San Francisco Jazz Festivals, there was a program that symbolized the impact of this long-running event. A concert featuring pianist Cecil Taylor -- one of the most determinedly individualistic artists in jazz history -- drew an intent, receptive, capacity crowd of nearly 1,000. That's considerably more than Taylor has attracted to local appearances at the Jazz Bakery (although there was an understandably larger turnout for his performance earlier this year as one of the participants in UCLA's All Tomorrow's Parties).

I don't in any way intend to demean Taylor's work, which I firmly believe will at some point be more fully honored than it is today. But the point is that the San Francisco Jazz Festival has established the sort of solid, dependable connection with its audiences that they will turn out in quantity for even the most offbeat acts. (And perhaps even more so for precisely such acts, as they did for an Ornette Coleman performance a few years ago that combined jazz improvisation with poetry reading, multimedia collage and onstage body piercings.)

Given that sort of receptivity -- not surprising for the community in which it takes place -- the festival has the opportunity to offer extraordinarily diverse programming, broadly encompassing every sort of music that might imaginably be found beneath the broad umbrella of jazz.

This year, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary with concerts extending from Wednesday to Nov. 10, the festival has come up with one of its most colorful and eclectic programs.

"Sometimes it comes together the way it does simply because of happenstance," says Randall Kline, founder and director of the festival. "But it's also because we're open to unusual ideas -- because our audience allows, even expects, us to try unusual combinations. Someone compared what we do as being more curatorial -- in the best sense of the word -- to look at all the possibilities out there and try to figure out how to put them together to make things more interesting."

Although this year's festival has its share of major names -- Shirley Horn, Elvin Jones, Wayne Shorter, Branford Marsalis, Charles Lloyd, Bobby McFerrin, to name only a few -- it is in the unusual combinations and pairings, in the offbeat inclusions, that it reveals its unique identity as one of the nation's preeminent jazz productions.

A concert on Oct. 28 featuring Brazilian composer-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal and the big Brazilian jazz band Banda Mantiqueira (internationally praised but virtually unknown in the U.S.) is an intriguing example of the way some pairings take place in the "happenstance" manner Kline describes.

"I've tried to get Hermeto many times," Kline says, "but he's not an easy person to get to come to this country. Then his agent put together a string of dates for him with a band. But Hermeto didn't like the money, basically, and decided he was only going to our date -- as a solo act -- because we offered him what he felt he deserved.

"Then I got a call from a big classical agency offering me a Brazilian band called Banda Mantiqueira. They figured I'd be the only person who'd know who they are, and in fact, Joshua Redman -- who is the spring festival's artistic director -- had already brought them to my attention and urged that we book them. So suddenly we had one of the finest international big jazz bands, working on a bill with a composer-musician who they feel has had a direct influence on their music."

Other unusual entries are the result of Kline's sheer persistence. On successive nights, for example, the festival presents the Ornette Coleman Trio (Nov. 7) and Merle Haggard's salute to western swing king Bob Wills (Nov. 8). Each booking is the result of years of effort.

"In Merle's case," Kline says, "we just never could seem to fit into his tour schedule. But I just kept calling, and this year they called me back. Which is great because it gives us an opportunity to present western swing music, performed by exactly the right guy. Merle is so dedicated to Wills that he's given his dog the same name as Wills' dog.

"With Ornette, I kept feeling we needed to have something to sort of bookend that controversial performance he gave here that upset so many people. So when we got him to come out with just his trio -- something he only does a few times a year -- it seemed perfect, the ideal way to experience pure Ornette."

The list of similarly compelling events includes a "surprise party" for Bobby McFerrin on Nov. 9, in which, according to Kline, "Bobby won't know who's going to be there to play with him until they walk out from behind the curtain, and hopefully what we'll get will be an evening of really spontaneous invention."

As in every festival, there will be a special event at Grace Cathedral.

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