With a sound and even a bio (he’s listed as a “producer, composer, pianist, DJ and live musician") that shows how hard he can be to categorize, Taylor McFerrin’s transcendent sound proved the perfect candidate to kick off San Jose Jazz’s fifth annual Winter Fest last night at the Continental in downtown San Jose’s hip SoFA District.
Labeled by San Jose Jazz as the organization’s “cool counterpoint” to its flagship summertime festival, Winter Fest is a lab for introducing jazz's fresh new talent. McFerrin is among a handful of acts that fall under the organization’s “jazz beyond” umbrella, which includes Kris Bowers, Marc Cary Focus Trio and Kendrick Scott in separate ticketed performances that run through March 8.
The diverse crowd, filled out in the intimate space largely by young, eager faces, showed the evening succeeded in bringing younger ears to a new incarnation of the diverse, and always evolving, jazz tradition. And though the music was miles away from traditional straight-ahead jazz, McFerrin's approach constantly utilized improvisation; he prefaced the show by noting that he'd be taking a “freestyle” approach to his repertoire.
Although the sound of McFerrin and the Brainfeeder collective with which he's aligned may come to be labeled “future jazz” (a descriptor that would place it among such ambiguous contemporary labels as “future R&B,” “future funk” and “future bass”) "fusion" would be a more apt title for McFerrin's music had the word not already been adopted by a jazz movement from roughly four decades prior. But this is a fusion in stark difference to that of the 1970s. While Miles Davis and his contemporaries pulled from elements of Latin and rock music, McFerrin infuses jazz with the sonics, and particularly the ever-changing rhythms, of hip-hop and electronic music.
Another unexpected aspect for the average jazz fan in the crowd was that the sounds emerging from the Continental’s speakers were coming from one man, the night’s maestro, presiding over a bank of sounds to embellish or strip away at will, utilizing two mics, a Rhodes keyboard, a MIDI controller with dozens of triggered sounds, and a keyboard.
McFerrin’s set started with his debut album Early Riser’s opener “Postpartum,” which paired earthy, ethereal synths with a booming kick resembling a heartbeat. The distanced, contemplative sound set the tone for an hour-long performance that included album cuts and a handful of improvised songs.
During these improvised portions, McFerrin, the son of a capella jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin, would begin by beatboxing a pattern before peppering in bass lines and other elements with just his voice. Later in the evening, he began adding bass lines and chord progressions with his keyboard. Rhythms would change on a dime -- a hard-hitting hip-hop beat would make way for a drum fill, to be replaced by a skittering double-time delivery reminiscent of drum 'n' bass.
Album standout “Decisions,” featuring a delicately understated vocal track from rising star Emily King, grew even more complex with McFerrin’s improvised engineering. Hidden elements became more pronounced, sometimes even isolated, to fascinating effect. The original elements then made way for a rhythmic re-vamp that took the track in more direct electronic territory, building a new edifice of bass lines, synth leads and harmonic support. Slowly, he re-introduced the familiar drum pattern that grounds the original, then ended with a vocal reprise of King’s poignant opening line: “Things have been a little strange since I left you.”
Another crowd-pleasing highlight was “Already There,” an all-star album cut featuring Robert Glasper on keys and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner on bass. McFerrin took a moment to highlight Thundercat’s blazing fast runs, mimicking the riffs with his own hands and smiling widely while swaying to the beat. He may have already been performing these tracks for months, but it seemed clear he has yet to grow tired of revisiting them.
The night proved a success for all parties involved -- for the Continental, who pulled off its first public performance without a hitch; for McFerrin, one artist among a collective of young, future-forward jazz talent that continues to test the boundaries of just what it means to be jazz in 2015; and for San Jose Jazz, who continue to pose that question to its audience with a festival that amplifies emerging voices in jazz’s fruitful contemporary landscape.