By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — SFJAZZ celebrates the return of one of the nation’s longest-running jazz festivals as the 37th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival kicks off Tuesday night. The eclectic, 13-day musical party hosts a wide variety of sounds during its opening week.
Founded in 1983 as a two-day event that was originally called the Jazz in the City Festival, the San Francisco Jazz Festival has established itself as a globally renowned institution presenting some of the world’s greatest jazz artists including such icons as pianist McCoy Tyner, singer Tony Bennett, and saxophone greats like Sonny Rollins and the late Ornette Coleman at a variety of venues across the city. While the SFJAZZ Center stands as the main location for the concerts scheduled, the festival still utilizes other nearby stages including Davies Symphony Hall and Herbst Theatre.
The festival gets underway early Tuesday evening with the free block party in the SFJAZZ Center’s Hayes Valley neighborhood. Centered around two-block multi-use project PROXY at the corner of Octavia and Hayes a couple of blocks from the center, the event starts at 5 p.m. and will feature live music from local jazzy cabaret soul/rock act Royal Jelly Jive (who recently released their third studio album, Limited Preserve No. 3) and traditional Puerto Rican quintet La Mixta Criolla in addition to jazz shorts projected at the venue’s outdoor theater, food trucks and a beer garden.
During the first week of performances, SFJAZZ will host concerts at the Center on Franklin Street in both the main Miner Auditorium and the more intimate Joe Henderson Lab featuring an array of rising young talents. Among the musicians performing are noted bebob/hard bop saxophonist Tia Fuller who brings her “Angelic Warrior” quartet to the Lab for two sets Wednesday while award-winning 25-year-old vocalist Jazzmeia Horn and her group play Miner Auditorium. On Thursday, the festival hosts an international double-bill at Miner with Cuban pianist Fabian Almazan and his forward-thinking octet Rizome and Malaysian bassist Linda May Han Oh and her quartet. Meanwhile, kora virtuoso and singer Sona Jobarteh plays her entrancing mix of traditional West African music, blues and Afropop at two sold-out shows in the Lab.
On Friday night, exploratory local jazz duo the Mattson 2 returns to Miner Auditorium. Made up of identical twins Jared (guitar) and Jonathan (drums), the pair became more widely known after their 2017 collaboration with Toro Y Moi principle Chaz Bundrick. Last year, they issued their stunning version of John Coltrane’s iconic spiritual suite A Love Supreme as well as Vaults of Eternity, a collection of covers that pays tribute to Japanese legends like Shintaro & Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Haruomi Hosono. For Friday night,’s open dance floor show they will reprise their version of A Love Supreme before being joined by veteran soul/jazz guitar great Calvin Keys for a special world premiere collaboration. In the Joe Henderson Lab, pianist/DJ/producer Mark de Clive-Lowe presents two sets his eclectic mix of acoustic jazz, electronics and dance rhythms with a quintet featuring local saxophone hero Theodross Avery.
On Saturday, the festival gets a solid dose of soul with a return performance by R&B singer José James and his stellar tribute to ’70s soul songwriter Bill Withers. Already acclaimed for his 2015 Billie Holiday homage Yesterday I Had the Blues, James released his collection of 12 classic Withers’ tunes Lean On Me last year on Blue Note Records to ecstatic reviews. His two performances in Miner Auditorium are sold out, as are the performances by Rudresh Mahanthappa in the Lab with his new all-star trio Moveable Mirrors with longtime Branford Marsalis Quartet bassist Eric Revis and drummer Dave King of The Bad Plus.
On Sunday, the festival offers up several global groove options for music fans. Miner Auditorium will host the Bay Area debut of Cuba’s Orchestra Akokán. A fiery Havana-based ensemble performing mambo in the style of ’50s legends like Pérez Prado, the group is fronted by dynamic vocalist José “Pepito” Gómez and features veterans of such noted powerhouse bands as Los Van Van and Irakere. Last year, the group released its eponymous debut album on Daptone Records to wide critical acclaim. While something of a departure for a label that has established a reputation for it’s vintage style soul recordings — the album was the imprint’s first Spanish-language record and the first recorded outside of its own Daptone Studios — the blazing display of horn-driven, locomotive Latin grooves is sure to please a savvy San Francisco audience.
In addition to that show, Norwegian clarinetist Felix Peikli will pay tribute to early swing great Benny Goodman with a pair of shows at the Joe Henderson Lab, while the Herbst Theatre presents a concert featuring Bay Area tabla giant Zakir Hussain. The recipient of the SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement Award, Hussain has been at the forefront of groundbreaking jazz and global sounds since the 1970s. The son of legendary tabla player Alla Rakha and a child prodigy, Hussain was touring professionally before he even entered his teens. He would travel to the U.S. in 1969 to teach music at the University of Washington and eventually at the Ali Akbar College of Music in Marin.
It was there Hussain would cross paths with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, joining him on his 1972 solo album Rolling Thunder and commencing a collaborative partnership that would span decades in the groups the Diga Rhythm Band (which later contributed to the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now) and Planet Drum. The tabla player would also work with noted jazz guitarist John McLaughlin in his acoustic global fusion ensemble Shakti that also featured Indian violinist L. Shankar.
In the years that followed, Hussain has continued to produce recordings that range from the Indian classical tradition to world music even to the electronic sounds of his Bill Laswell collaboration Tabla Beat Science. Hussain also served as an SFJAZZ Resident Artist Director for three years. The tabla virtuoso will perform at Herbst Theatre with vocalist Mahesh Kale and violinist Kala Ramnath Sunday night. For a complete list of details and ticket information, please visit the SFJAZZ website.