Julian Lage and Fred Hersch at SFJAZZ

Last week I saw Fred Hersch and Julian Lage at the Herbst performing for San Francisco Jazz Fest. The duo delighted a crowd of eager jazz festival goers all of whom were missing an important Golden State Warrior’s game to be there. While I do love Fred Hersch, it was Julian’s name on the bill that brought me to the Herbst that evening.

Julian is a markedly prodigious talent (he started playing guitar around 4, played on the Grammy’s stage at the tender age of 8, and also starred in a documentary about himself titled Jules at Eight), but what is really special about this young guitarist is the range of styles he works within. Although often called a jazz guitarist, Julian has never been constrained to any particular genre. He’s had training from jazz legends like Jim Hall, but he has also learned from well known Spanish and bluegrass guitarists.

Julian’s past projects actually show very little particular allegiance to jazz or any genre at all. On his 2015 solo acoustic album, World’s Fair, Julian plays beautiful original pieces that bring to mind the playing of Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucía as well as Joe Pass on certain tracks. One of my favorite tracks on that album, “Ryland,” Julian’s tribute to the legend Ry Cooder, also shows up on Arclight. 

Julian has also released two albums with Chris Eldridge, the bluegrass guitar player of the Punch Brothers, and has toured extensively with Eldridge. Julian also collaborated with Nels Cline on a jaw-dropingly, beautiful album, Room. Room’s starkness highlights both guitarists’ ability to listen as well as Nels Cline’s creativity as a composer. The album is aptly named for the well timed rests and eery pauses that show listeners that great musicians know exactly when to create silence together and when to fill it in.

Within his own music, Julian happily lets elements of multiple genres sink into his guitar playing. This is what makes Julian’s jazz guitar sound different. This is perhaps most notable on Arclight, Julian’s 2016 album from Mack Avenue Records. Arclight is an exciting mix of original pieces and new takes on lesser known Great American Songbook standards from the pre-bebop era. Arclight presents itself as a jazz album with classic jazz instrumentation: Julian on a full body telecaster style electric guitar (the guitar is not so classic jazz), Scott Colley on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums. The trio delves into standards like Spike Hughes’ “Nocturne” with beautiful clarity, highlighting the unique minor note the song starts on by continuing it throughout. This was actually the principal idea that led Julian to chose the standards he covers on the album: an interest in pre-bebop tunes that start on a minor note. Such tunes were not exactly common during the era because most jazz tunes were meant to be dance music. While the trio undeniably pulls off a beautiful jazz album, Julian’s guitar often takes risks stylistically bringing the album into twang-ier, rock and roll territory (he is on the tele after all). He does this to great success (I think) on tracks like “Fortune Teller” and “Supera” and “Activate.”

So, yes, I was going to see Julian play guitar, and play guitar he did! Fred Hersch and Julian actually released an album together in 2015 called Free Flying. Julian plays a Linda Manzer Blue Note on the album. I’ve listened to the album a few times, and I enjoy it; however, Julian’s guitar playing doesn’t always come through very strong on it. I’m not sure if it has to do with how the album was recorded or if it was the intention of the musicians at the time. I think Fred Hersch is an astonishing piano player, so melodic, but often times his playing is a little too classical and straight laced for me. I was hoping that live Julian’s twangin’ and creative guitar playing would come through and maybe even liven up Hersch’s playing. This seemed to be exactly what occurred. Julian and Fred Hersch played an absolutely gorgeous, rocking, creative, cool set. Always in perfect time with one another, it was abundantly clear to all that the duo had been playing together for a long time. Sam Rivers’ “Beatrice” which is on Free Flying was a highlight. It sounded wilder and cooler live, with a few incredible guitar solos on the Blue Note.

Fred Hersch closed the show by himself with a heartbreaking rendition of “For No One” that nearly brought me to tears.

Chris Potter at SFJAZZ

This evening I went with my two jazz-loving parents to see Chris Potter at SFJAZZ. Often times my mother will take me and my father to see jazz, but tonight I was taking them. I’ve been interested in seeing Chris Potter for a while. I think I first became aware of him through Snarky Puppy’s social media account which reposted a video of him playing. I was captivated by the power of his tenor sax.

I began to listen to Potter’s recorded work and was blown away by his 2002 album “Traveling Mercies.” The album is at once mystical, wild and free while also refined in its melodic beauty. I loved each track on its own, but it especially blew me away as an album. I felt like I had been waiting for that jazz record to lift me up and take me away for a long time. “Traveling Mercies” features Potter not only on tenor and soprano sax but also on alto flute and bass clarinet. Often you’ll even hear Potter overdub himself signing and playing multiple different instruments. The record also features pianist Kevin Hays, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Bill Stewart. John Scofield contributes cool and tight solos on three tracks and Adam Rogers adds nylon-string and slide on two other tracks. The album sounds undeniably modern and often quite strange with unique meters, but it is kept grounded by the power of Potter’s tenor sax which is weaved throughout. It is a remarkably beautiful and thought provoking record.

Next I listened to Potter’s 2001 album “Gratitude.” Different from “Traveling Mercies,” each track on “Gratitude” literally shows its gratitude for a different jazz legend in its title: “The Source (for John Coltrane),” “Shadow (for Joe Henderson),” “Sun King (for Sonny Rollins),” and so on and so forth. Potter honors Coltrane, Henderson, Rollins, Eddie Harris, Wayne Shorter, Michael Becker, Joe Lovano, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, and “The Current Generation” in each of his song titles. After listening to “Traveling Mercies” the album felt a bit timid. I guess it was not fair of me to listen to the newer record first. However, what is undeniable on the record is Potter’s virtuosity on the tenor sax. The record features Hayes on keys and Colley on bass again and also Brian Blade on drums (!!! I love Brian Blade !!!).

Chris Potter did not disappoint. He played all new music from his freshly released album, “The Dreamer is the Dream,” with pianist David Virelles, drummer Marcus Gilmore, and bassist Ben Street (Joe Martin plays bass on the album). Every member of the quartet shined and the music was exquisite. It was exactly what I was hoping for: a step even further from “Traveling Mercies,” with wild free solos, adventurous melodies, and crazy meters.

Potter is an extraordinarily creative composer using a synth to start a few of the songs with mystical chimes and the beautiful sounds of rain and the earth. This type of experimentation with electronic sounds isn’t exactly common in the particular jazz world Potter inhabits, and I could see skepticism on the faces of some around me. However, Potter uses the synth to make a genius point.

The mystical electronic earth sounds are soon overtaken, slowly, by a rapturous and powerful piano and a primitive drum. Soon a wild bassline comes in. Before you know it the synth has gone completely silent, and it has been overtaken by piano, drums and bass. And then you start to realize that those electronic sounds never sounded entirely different from the live sounds of the instruments. And then the huge sound of Potter’s sax blows into your ears and through your body, waking you up and making you remember what life is about.

Aaron Diehl presents Jelly & George feat. Adam Birnbaum & Cécile McLorin Salvant at SFJAZZ

Jelly Roll Morton and George Gershwin probably wouldn’t be your first idea for a pairing of two great jazz composers. Both are indeed great, but they never knew each other as Jelly Roll was in New Orleans while Gershwin was in New York City. However, they are contemporaries, born only 8 years apart from one another.

Aaron Diehl in his most recent series of concerts takes on the pairing with a playful and often humorous approach. Diehl’s piano playing along with Adam Birnbaum’s is impressive. Although Diehl is the bandleader the two pianists work together closely, complementing each other and graciously handing off the spotlight often. It was on a beautiful, slow and quiet early Gershwin piece that this became extremely evident. You know a good team of musicians from how quiet they can get together, and wow they got quiet. Diehl and Birnbaum softly and deftly handed off flourishes between each other for quite a long time. The two pianos continued to impress throughout the night.

Diehl’s band is exceedingly lively and virtuosic. I was truly floored by the rhythm section (Paul Sikivie on bass and Lawrence Leathers on drums) and the brass (Corey Wilcox on trombone and Bruce Harris on trumpet) and a single clarinetist (Evan Christopher). The clarinetist, Christopher, showed his chops very early in the night with the craziest clarinet solo I’ve ever heard. Lively and high and low. I’d actually never heard such gorgeous high notes from a jazz clarinet before. Diehl gave Christopher ample opportunities to solo throughout the night, and I was so glad (@@@Glasper). The trombone, Wilcox, only took one solo all night, but I was floored. Mostly by how loud and powerful he was. I’m usually more impressed by how quiet a brass instrument can get, but I have to say Wilcox’s power in his solo took my breath away. All together trombone, trumpet, and clarinet got reeeeeally quiet at times. Most notably during Jelly’s Whiny Boy (more to come on this tune).

I’m not ignoring the rhythm section. They were not the stars of the show and mostly played quietly, setting up their comrades’ solos (each were given only one short solo). A highlight of the whole night though was Leathers’s solo. He played an incredibly free and wild solo that was pretty different from the rest of the program. It was a thrill. At one point he lifted up his snare drum and yelled into it.

Many came to the show for one reason and one reason only: Cecile McLorin Salvant. Salvant was prominently featured on the bill but only ended up singing on probably a third of the tunes Diehl’s band played. Oh did she deliver though. Undoubtedly she’s one of the few who gives Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday a run for their money (not that it’s a competition). Salvant was playful and fun while undoubtedly masterful showing a superhuman command for the lowest notes. Salvant really shined as a performer on Whiny Boy (Jelly Roll), a pretty explicit song. She sang beautifully and conveyed the humor of the thing brilliantly with impeccable timing. It’s cool to see a jazz vocalist consider timing as a device of humor (something you’d of course expect in musical theatre but maybe not at a jazz show today).

What ultimately ended up being so illuminating about the particular program for the night is something quite obvious. New Orleans and New York sound so damn different even though they both got the blues so hard!