Artists Put the Struggles and Hopes of the Past Year to Music at SJZ New Works Fest

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San Jose Jazz commissioned saxophonist Howard Wiley, đàn tranh player Vân-Ánh Võ and pianist Javier Santiago to create new works that will stream online next week.  (Left: Susan Mah, center: Tung Nguyen, right: courtesy of the artist)

When it comes to creative collaborations, Vân-Ánh Võ often acts as a conduit between ideas, musicians and sounds from California to Vietnam. Coaxing melodies of hope and heartbreak from her 16-string đàn tranh, her technical mastery and moving compositions have captivated audiences at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and even Barack Obama’s White House.

So, like a lot of artists, the Fremont musician found herself feeling unmoored when the pandemic interrupted her flow of rehearsals and performances. “In June I felt like I was frozen,” she recalls. “I couldn’t do anything, with everything dropping around me. As the [bandleader], I have to deal with all the cancellations and all my ensemble’s needs. It’s sad, it’s very sad; it’s confusing and frustrating.”

“By July I decided to try to get out of that frozen box I was in and try to see if I can keep moving,” she continues. “I found myself drifting or floating. And that’s when I decided to write music again.”

But even while she attempted to keep herself and her ensemble motivated, Võ found herself increasingly discouraged by the limitations of working over Zoom. Finally, she turned a corner earlier this year, when San Jose Jazz commissioned her to write and perform a new piece debuting on May 6 for its New Works Fest, which kicks off online this week on April 29.

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The piece Võ wrote and recorded for the festival is a thundering, cathartic one called “Fire,” featuring taiko drummer Jimi Nakagawa and marimba lumina player Joel Davel. In the piece, her đàn bầu playing is alternately yearning, anxious and furious. She pauses to emphatically recite a poem in Vietnamese by 18th-century poet Hồ Xuân Hương, a chant that evokes an awe of the natural world.

“The concept is that I myself and all of us have been going through a very difficult time. ... But that doesn’t mean it will stop us from being creative, being hopeful and trying to move on,” Võ explains. “In our culture, fire destroys but also gives new life for new ideas.”

Commissioning original music is new for San Jose Jazz, which is best known for putting on live events like its popular Winter and Summer Fests. For this endeavor, the organization awarded grants to 33 musicians with its Jazz Aid Fund, organized in response to COVID. The artists were selected by a panel of experts including musicians, events presenters and journalists (including regular KQED Arts & Culture contributor Andrew Gilbert).

“The good thing is that our influencers came up with some names we’ve never heard of before,” says artistic director Bruce Labadie of the panel’s selections. “And so now we have a whole list of new artists to work with in the future when we get back to live performances.”

Eleven of the artists hail from the Bay Area. And like Võ, many don’t work in strictly jazz per se. Pianist Javier Santiago, for instance, blends jazz and beat-making, and sometimes invites rappers on to his songs as guest vocalists. Others, like Howard Wiley and Kev Choice, have toured with major artists like Lauryn Hill, and are also fluent in soul, R&B and—in Choice’s case—classical.

April 29 through May 8, San Jose Jazz will debut performances that some of the grantees recorded in its new Break Room, a streaming studio that will double as an intimate concert space when indoor shows resume at the venue. In the meantime, fans can catch recorded performances by Võ, Santiago, Choice and Wiley, as well as Oran Etkin, Tammy Hall, Ten Spencer, Chris Cain, Claudia Villela, Justin Ouellet, Robbie Benson and Ian Santillano. Online performances are ticketed, and the public can also watch them for free in the form of projections on the side of the San Jose Jazz headquarters at South 1st and San Carlos Streets.

“[The project] gives me hope that we’ll come back, and when we come back we’ll come back stronger,” Võ says. “And the honor of it overrides the actual financial award.”

For other artists, the commission became a platform to reflect on the pandemic’s mental and spiritual toll. “It made me really have to look and dig deep for some faith in the way the world was turning out,” says Javier Santiago, whose performance will stream alongside Võ’s on May 6.

Santiago says he hit a slump during the winter after months without live shows, which were how he previously made a living. He composed his light, soulful and somewhat funky piece, “The Light That Awaits Us,” as a way to summon “the patience and perseverance to get through this.”

Howard Wiley’s new song, aptly titled “The Never Ending Year,” also looks to make meaning from the trauma of the pandemic. “The first part of the composition is the state of not knowing, not being able to do so many things that are vital—or what we perceived as being vital—for us as artists and people and community,” says Wiley, whose performance screens on May 8.

The second movement of Wiley’s composition reflects another truth that gave him perspective. “The unrelenting resilience of the creative spirit is amazing,” he says. “So much was going on in our lives last year, and yet we still found ways to creatively express [ourselves]. ... That is the optimism—that is my favorite part about jazz music.”

Wiley misses Friday nights at Cafe Stritch, another cornerstone of San Jose’s jazz scene he says was often “lit to death” with music and dancing in the before times. But he’s encouraged that an institution like San Jose Jazz is doing its part to keep the music playing.

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“It’s a creative thing that constantly has to be encouraged replenished,” Wiley says. “You have to constantly turn the soil and aerate it, so you have to do that with the music and the art.”