Con Brio is having a moment. The San Francisco soul band landed the challenging and high profile assignment of opening up San Jose Jazz’s Summer Fest on the main stage Friday afternoon at the north end of the Plaza de Cesar Chavez. Ziek McCarter, Con Brio’s dynamic lead vocalist and snake-hipped guiding spirit, did his best to spark the weekend-long street party, and by the end of the 80-minute set he could be proud of a job well done.
Summer Fest kicks into frenzy mode around noon Saturday, with 13 stages and half a dozen acts performing simultaneously in venues and stages arrayed around the plaza through Sunday night. Friday’s more limited offerings set the mood for the proceedings.
A sleek and sinewy funk/disco combo that makes the most of its six-piece instrumentation, Con Brio rides on the buoyant crest of Benjamin Andrews’ relentlessly grooving rhythm guitar. With a beseeching tenor that floats effortlessly up to a silky smooth falsetto, McCarter occupies the uncrowded sweet-end of the soul vocal spectrum. Egalitarian in outlook and decidedly anti-materialist in sensibility, Con Brio purveys San Francisco R&B, though they’re half a hook away from breaking out of the Bay Area. The band’s best songs, like the anthem “Never Going to be the Same,” sound like half-forgotten hits from 1978 (the band’s moment continues this weekend when Con Brio opens for Morris Day and the Time at Stern Grove on Sunday afternoon).
Strolling down 1st Street, Summer Fest and San Jose’s First Friday street party converged for the first time, and the air was suddenly charged with the sound of pure rhumba. San Jose Jazz has always put Afro-Caribbean music at the center of the festival, but this was something new and extraordinary, as Cuban conguero Jesus Diaz led an all-star rhumba session from the back of SJZ Boom Box Stage (a box truck with the side cut out and painted to look like a giant boom box). It was like stumbling into a street corner gathering in Havana, with Diaz and vocalist Fito Reynoso delivering invocations accompanied by a conga battery including unbilled percussion master Michael Spiro
So where was the jazz happening? On Friday, the prime spot was also on First Street, where Café Stritch was in the midst of the third annual Rahsaanathon, a mini-festival that parallels but isn’t officially part of Summer Fest, and summons the spirit of the singular horn player, composer, and bandleader Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Friday was the second of three nights featuring East Bay-raised trombonist Steve Turre, a fixture on the New York scene for some four decades who spent his formative years playing with Kirk on Bay Area stages. Turre has presented Kirk’s music around the world, but Café Stritch has quickly become his Rahsaanian homebase.
Celebrating the occasion of Kirk’s 80th birthday (1935-1977), Turre’s Eulipion All-Stars feature Oakland-raised New York drummer Darrell Green, bassist Marcus Shelby, pianist Matt Clark, alto and soprano saxophonist Charles McNeal (who is much missed in the Bay Area since relocating to Las Vegas), and protean multi-instrumentalist James Carter (who also plays a quartet show with the same rhythm section at Stritch on Sunday).
Kirk wrote memorable themes that embodied his tragic, ecstatic and supremely humane sensibility, like the episodic “Three For the Festival” and sassy “Dorthaan’s Walk,” and the Eulipion All-Stars engaged fully with the music’s unruly, emotionally charged spirit.
As on the previous Rahsaanathons, the ageless poet Betty Neals was on hand to recite her verse she recorded with Kirk on his album classic 1976 The Return of the 5000 lb Man, providing the evening with a true benediction (a blessing amplified by Kirk's widow Dorthaan Kirk, who was also in the house). And powerhouse blues and jazz singer Terrie Odabi infused the Eulipion theme with a regal and earthy air (she headlines her own show at Yoshi’s on Sept. 8). Around midnight Café Stritch’s Steve Borkenhagen presented Carter with Kirk’s reconditioned namesake Stritch, a straight alto with a keening tone, adding another layer to the Kirkian communion.
If the best festivals leave you exhilarated by music you experienced and frustrated by the acts you missed, Summer Fest and the Rahsaanathon deserve their reputations as being some of the Bay Area’s essential cultural events. For Saturday, bring on the Brazilians with Letieres Leite and Orchestra Rumpilezz!