Expect the Unexpected at Other Minds 25, SF’s Avant-Jazz Festival

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Saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell listens to a solo on stage during the "Jack DeJohnette's Made In Chicago" performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island, on Aug. 1, 2015.  (Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images)

Harry Bernstein is no stranger to the challenges of organizing live events. For the past 15 years or so, the retired TV producer and head of development for long-shuttered online retailer reel.com has been hosting intimate performances by Tuvan throat singers, modern classical composer David A. Jaffe and countless other artists at his home in Berkeley.

But when Bernstein was in 2019 asked to curate a festival for the 25th anniversary of Other Minds, the new and experimental music organization, he had no idea of the difficulties he would face.

“It was originally scheduled for March 2020,” Bernstein says. “We were set to go. The program guide was printed. We were selling tickets. And then, boom, the world changed. I was a little over-optimistic because I rescheduled it twice thinking that the pandemic was coming to an end. Now, I’m confident that the festival is going forward, but up until a month ago, I was holding my breath.”

Bernstein will have the chance to more fully exhale when Other Minds 25 gets underway on Oct. 14 at the Taube Atrium Theater, the event space situated within the San Francisco War Memorial Complex. The four day festival, subtitled “Moment’s Notice,” boasts a jaw-dropping lineup of living legends and young talents from the world of avant-jazz.

It kicks off on Thursday evening with pianist Myra Melford and bassist Mark Dresser, accompanied by the modern dancer Oguri, and wraps up on Sunday the 17th with a set of saxophone duets from pioneering experimental composer Anthony Braxton and sound artist and Mills College professor James Fei. In between, attendees will hear performances by celebrated artists like Roscoe Mitchell, Tyshawn Sorey and Mary Halvorson.

Percussionist and composer Tyshawn Sorey is one of the revered avant-jazz artists performing at Other Minds 25. (John Rogers)

While Bernstein knows who will be performing at Other Minds 25, in most cases, he doesn’t know what they will be playing. Nearly every set taking place at the festival will be improvised. As well, he left up to many of the artists to choose the other musicians they would be performing with. “By and large, I put together the initial list of people I wanted in the festival,” Bernstein says, “but I left it to him or her to put together the group. I mean, it would be ridiculous to impose on Anthony Braxton. It wouldn’t get very far. I don’t think that would endear me to him.”


Many of the musicians opted to work with those they’ve recorded or performed with in the past. Electronic artist Ikue Mori, playing on Thursday the 14th, chose frequent collaborators harpist Zeena Parkins and percussionist William Winant.

William Parker has worked with percussionist Hamid Drake for decades. When they take the stage on Friday, Oct. 15, not only will Parker trade in his usual standup bass for bass flutes and brass, but the pair will be joined by dancer Patricia Nicholson.

Avant-garde composer Anthony Braxton made an indelible mark on jazz in the Bay Area and beyond.
Avant-garde composer Anthony Braxton has left an indelible mark on jazz in the Bay Area and beyond. (Peter Gannushkin)

One part of the festival lineup that truly surprised Bernstein was when Sorey asked to be paired with King Britt, a producer and composer best known for his work in electronic dance music. “The fact that Tyshawn is performing with him is a testament to his astonishing eclecticism,” says Bernstein. “It’s really quite something.”

Even in the weeks leading up to the festival, Bernstein has had hurdles to clear. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire was to be part of an ensemble that included Roscoe Mitchell, bassist Junius Paul and drummer Vincent Davis but had to drop off the bill. (The other three musicians will still be performing.) 2012 Pulitzer finalist Wadada Leo Smith was booked to play a solo set, but the 79-year-old trumpet player was advised by his doctors to avoid traveling right now.

Luckily, Bernstein has a long list of Bay Area musicians he could call on to fill the gap in the schedule, which is how Saturday’s performance by drummer Donald Robinson and saxophonist Larry Ochs came together. “This duo is always kind of there,” Ochs says. “Donald lives 15 minutes from me so we quote-unquote rehearse a lot, which is playing but talking about lots of other things. It’s nice to have the opportunity. I mean, I have to admit I was going to go to the festival anyway.”