SFJAZZ: Donny McCaslin Group / Antonio Sanchez Migration

In mid June, we at CatSynth were treated to a greatl concert at SFJAZZ that featured Donny McCaslin’s “Blackstar” Band and Antonio Sánchez’s group Migration. McCaslin and his quartet are perhaps best known for their collaboration with David Bowie on his final album Blackstar (which we have discussed previously), but they are a remarkable group in their own right.

Donny McCaslin
[Donny McCaslin]

Indeed, our interest in this show was not just the Bowie connection, but reviews from friends who had previously seen the Santa Cruz-born-and-raised McCaslin live and were blown away by the performance. And as soon as the band started in on their first tune, “Shake Loose” from their latest album Beyond Now, we understood why. It was thunderous, aggressive, but complex and intricate at the same time. There was an intensity, and even a bit of a punk sensibility to the way they powered through the entire set, which included additional selections from the album, a new composition by McCaslin, and “Lazarus” from Blackstar. The encore was also a Bowie song, but a surprising one: “Look Back in Anger.” There really wasn’t a bad moment in the entire set, and it went by quickly with the group’s frenetic pace and energy.

While McCaslin was front and center both visually and musically – he is rather tall as well as a very expressive performer – I was also very impressed with Jason Lindner on keyboards. He freely mixed synthesizers, classic electric piano, and acoustic grand in a performance that was solid harmonically and rhythmically, but again complex and multi-linear. Rounding out the quartet were Mark Guiliana on drums and jazz multi-instrumentalist Nate Wood on bass.

The first half of the show featured Antonio Sanchez Migration performing Sanchez’s long-form composition The Meridian Suite. While the piece has classical influences in its structure, it was unmistakably jazz, and Sanchez himself told the audience that unlike classical-music concerts, the audience was encouraged to applaud between movements and anywhere else the felt warranted such a reaction. The unusually long piece moved through several styles and textures, from very sparse modern jazz to more funky riffs, all anchored by Sanchez’s versatile and precise drumming. Some of the movements included lyrics sung by Thana Alexa. The band also featured Chaise Baird on tenor saxophone, John Escreet on keyboards, and Matt Brewer on bass.

Overall, it was a concert we were happy to have the chance to see; and I will certainly be on the lookout for McCaslin’s next appearance in the Bay Area. In the meantime, we will be enjoying his newest album.

Wayne Shorter Quartet at SFJAZZ

This spring the Wayne Shorter Quartet returned to the SFJAZZ center, and we at CatSynth returned to see them.

[Wayne Shorter Quartet at SFJAZZ. Photo by Bill Evans. Via SFJAZZ on Instagram]

In addition to Mr Shorter, the quartet included Danilo Perez on piano and John Patitucci on bass. Terri Lyne Carrington sat in on drums in place of Brian Blade. Carrington is a longtime collaborator with Shorter, but she brought a very different energy to the quartet than Blade did when we saw them in 2015. The result was a more lush and melodic rhythm line that was in sharp contrast to Blade’s more minimalist rhythms. It was, however, Perez who shown brightest on this particular night with a virtuosic and athletic piano performance throughout. Perez’s long fast runs contrasted with Shorter’s very spare and minimal style as they danced around both classic and new tunes, never really presenting the heads in their entirety but hinting at them enough for many of us in the audience to pick up on what was happening. More than one tune was completely framed by Perez’s piano solos. Nonetheless, it was still Wayne Shorter holding court in the middle of the stage, each spare note from his instruments placed carefully.

Not surprisingly, it was a full house at the Miner Auditorium that evening; and the audience got what they came for in seeing a living legend of jazz but also experiencing new music at the same time. As in 2015, the quartet played new compositions in addition to older well-known tunes. It’s great to see someone of Wayne Shorter’s stature and long career continuing to break new musical ground in live performances.

SFJAZZ Honors Zakir Hussain

Just before departing for NAMM back in January, we had the opportunity to attend the SFJAZZ Gala honoring Zakih Hussain with a lifetime achievement award.

One of the unexpected guests of the evening was a torrential rain that peaked just as we were arriving. This video from our Instagram gives a small taste.

Crazy rain for #sfjazzgala ☔️

A post shared by CatSynth / Amanda C (@catsynth) on

But inside it was warm, the drinks were flowing, the music was as expected. We had seats in the bleachers which provided an excellent view of the stage. And the backs of the musicians, including the maestro himself.

You can see a much better view of Zakir Hussain performing with saxophonist John Handy is the Instagram photo from SFJAZZ.

It was a sweet and delightfully simple jam, which capped an evening of performances featuring the SFJazz Collective, saxophonists Joe Lovano and Joshua Redman, guitarist Bill Frisell, vocalist Mary Stallings, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and drummer Cindy Blackman-Santana.

The award presentation itself was preceded by a tribute video made by Hussain’s daughters, which highlighted his genius as a musician and rhythmic master as well as his good humor and down-to-earth nature as a person. This was also apparent in his remarks upon accepting the award. (The same could not be said for the verbose and pretentious introduction by Mickey Hart.)

After the presentation, it was time to party, with more music and dancing filling the hall.

We didn’t stay too late because I was off to NAMM the next morning, but I am glad to have braved the storm to celebrate a great musician.

Wayne Shorter Quartet at SFJAZZ

Last month I had the privilege of seeing the Wayne Shorter Quartet at the SFJAZZ Center.

Wayne Shorter Quartet at SFJAZZ

Over the years, many of his compositions have become standards in the jazz world, and he has had a long and illustrious career with Art Blakey, Miles Davis Quintet, Weather Report, and more. In each case he has reinvented and reinvigorated his music, most recently with an all acoustic quartet featuring Danilo Pérez (piano), Brian Blade (drums), and John Patitucci on bass. It was this band that we saw on this occasion.

This band took a very original approach to Shorter’s compositions, some of which were very recent (there was a suggestion some the material was even new for the show). What made it most interesting was how subtle and sparse the music was, rarely did we hear a head or chord pattern in its entirety. The music was nonetheless extremely intricate and tight. There weren’t defined roles of a rhythm section and solo instrument in a traditional sense, but everyone took on every role, including Brian Blade’s drums. Especially when Wayne Shorter was playing, it affects the whole tenor of the proceedings (no pun intended). He would only play a few notes and then pause for a time, but those few were enough to take command of the direction of the song. But each musician had a role that transcended their instrument. Blade’s drumming could be at times quite forceful and his use of vocalizations quite curious, but these were moments of punctuation and in between he was very metric and even quiet at times with just enough hint of time to keep things moving. Danilo Pérez was a force of nature on the piano, and his pouring through reams of sheet music as he played was a reminder that these were fully formed compositions and not simply free improvisations.

The complexity and subtlety made it challenging even for seasoned fans to pick out the individual tunes. But we are pretty sure we heard an extended workout on Sanctuary (best known version appears on the B side of Bitches Brew); Aung San Suu Kyi (timely given the elections in Myanmar); and we thought that encore was an acoustic and distilled version of Joyrider. It was a perhaps funkier and more accessible way to send the audience off for the evening.