It is a trademark of certain jazz festivals in wine country to provide attendees with a calm, comforting experience. In Napa, Brian Culbertson's annual smooth-jazz-and-wine "Jazz Getaway" routinely sells out. In Sonoma County, Rodney Strong Vineyards hosts a summertime series with the easy sounds of Boney James, Dave Koz, David Sanborn and others. The late Sonoma Jazz Festival infamously leaned toward accessible pop acts like Sheryl Crow and Boz Scaggs.
And then there's the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, which has never shied away from edgier bookings. On Saturday night, that was more than apparent. As Joshua Redman, Oliver Lake, Eddie Henderson, Craig Taborn and Billy Hart recreated Hart's 1977 free-jazz album Enchance, you'd have thought you were watching a loft-jazz session at Environ in 1970s New York City and not a sit-down concert at a private school in current-day Sonoma County.
Chalk it up to Healdsburg Jazz's artistic director Jessica Felix, who called the concert "my personal favorite of my career." Or, let Billy Hart, the subject of the weekend's tribute, do it for you: "Our jazz angel," he called Felix, as the full crowd sustained a standing ovation at the end.
The evening was a double-header, in fact. Hart's first band, Quest, brought a searing, spiritual jazz to the theater; pianist Richie Beirach, who'd flown in from Germany for the show, often shouted across the stage, prodding bassist Ron McClure and drummer Hart to new heights. Saxophonist David Liebman sent spiraling lines across the room, and during Beirach's "Elm," managed to make a twig-like, wooden flute sound wild and human.
But this was Hart's night, and he made the most of it. What other drummer in the world, opening the ballad "Tender Mercies," would contrast the band's languorous pace with quick, jittery hi-hats? Or, as the notes dissipated at the end, unleash a blast of rapid-fire bass drum hits? This wasn't juxtaposition for the sake of opposites; it was simply Hart's uncommon, unexpected tastefulness, and it worked. (Hart also led the crowd in what's one of the few call-and-response drum solos I've ever seen.)
By the end, the woman next to me remarked, "I've got chills." The crowd stood on its feet for three whole minutes, maybe more, and the band had to return to the stage to explain that there simply wasn't any time for an encore: Enchance was up next.
Formed to recreate Hart's 1977 album of the same name, the band included original sidemen Dave Holland on bass, Oliver Lake on saxophone, and Eddie Henderson on trumpet along with Hart on drums. The late Don Pullen was replaced by an able Craig Taborn, and Joshua Redman served as the logical stand-in for his father, the great Dewey Redman. It was, as Hart called it, a dream come true -- an impeccable group performing a brilliant album nearly lost to the dustbin of history.
And within one minute of the opening number, "Corner Culture," Lake and Redman went head-to-head in ferocious, simultaneous solos, playing as hard as possible while also listening keenly to each other, matching tones and timbres as the band laid out. This ESP would continue for "Diff Customs," as Lake's solo ended on a high squeal which Redman matched in unison before taking over; later, Redman "passed" the solo in the same way to Henderson, with a high trill.
If the wine country crowd was antagonized, it didn't show. I kept my eyes out for people getting up and leaving, and I didn't see it happening. By the third song, "Shadow Dance," and Redman's incredible solo -- his body folding into itself in rhythm, his notes blasted into the microphone, thrown away into his inner thigh, spun around into the wings -- it's safe to say that despite the cacophonous sounds onstage, the crowd was transfixed.
This is what the best jazz festivals do. They allow players to be themselves completely, no matter how it may challenge the audience. During the manic transcendence happening on stage, I thought back to a too-languid night at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival in 2008, coincidentally featuring Redman and Hart. It was slow and plodding, full of familiar ballads, and whether intentional or not, it felt like a concession to the wine country crowd. Considering the adventurousness of the players, I couldn't help but feel they were holding back.
On Saturday night, during the final song, Don Pullen's "Pharaoh," there was no holding back. I thought of what Felix told me in 2008, of her caution in booking edgier, freer jazz -- that "this area doesn't know how to listen to that kind of music that well."
Eight years later, after gradually opening minds to different music one at a time on an annual basis, Felix stood before a crowd on their feet at the wildly creative sounds they'd just heard.
"You stayed with it!" Felix said from the stage, thrilled. "I was nervous! But you stayed with it!"
The Healdsburg Jazz Festival continues through June 12 with the Joey Alexander Trio, Fred Hersch & Anat Cohen, the Claire Daly Quintet, Charlie Hunter and more. Details here.