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Review: Magic in the Air for All-Star Celebration of SFJAZZ Founder

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four men play saxophones and trumpets
Chris-Potter, Branford Marsalis, Mike Rodriguez and David Sanchez perform Wayne Shorter's 'Armageddon' at the SFJAZZ gala honoring founder Randall Kline, May 4, 2023. (Drew Altizer Photography)

You might know Randall Kline as the guy who gets on stage before SFJAZZ shows to shower praise on the musicians. Last night, the tables were turned: as the recipient of the SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement Award before his upcoming retirement, it was Kline, founder and driving force of SFJAZZ for 40 years, who was lauded by the jazz artists.

This began right at the start of the all-star gala concert, when a processional of nine musicians played a traditional Santeria chant while marching down the aisles, each stopping at Kline’s third-row seat for a fist bump. And it carried through to the end, when a more formal testimonial at the podium came from pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who cited Kline’s “talent, charisma, intelligence and experience” in presenting jazz in San Francisco.

The highest tribute, though, came from the music itself.

Playing at their highest caliber, saxophonists Chris Potter and David Sánchez duetted on Joe Henderson’s “Recorda Me.” Cécile McLorin Salvant delivered a buoyant, joyful “If This Isn’t Love” at the absolute height of jazz vocal artistry. Ravi Coltrane performed his mother Alice Coltrane’s pensive “Turiya and Ramakrishna,” and never before have I heard him play with more emotion, or depth. Truly, something was in the air.

(L–R) Host Diane Reeves and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane at the SFJAZZ gala honoring founder Randall Kline, May 4, 2023. (Drew Alitzer Photography)

Lost legends hung over portions of the set. Wayne Shorter, who died just two months ago, was remembered by Branford Marsalis, leading a probing take on Shorter’s “Armageddon.” Oakland trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire honored Ornette Coleman with a ferocious “Una Muy Bonita,” soloing while the rhythm section fell apart in all the best ways. At the concert’s most sublime moment, pianist Rubalcaba gave a breathtaking solo performance of Charlie Haden‘s “First Song.”

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But the mood was not all somber. When host Diane Reeves announced the winning score of the Warriors game to wild cheers, it was apparent that this was a celebration, not a sad farewell. Right before violinist Regina Carter tore the house down on Cuban bassist Israel “Cachao” López’s “Chanchullo,” a cocktail glass dropped and shattered somewhere in the seats, and rather than murmuring uncomfortably, the audience hooted and clapped like it was a Havana party in 1949.

SFJAZZ founder Randall Kline accepts the Lifetime Achievement Award at the organization’s annual gala in San Francisco on May 4, 2023. (Drew Alitzer Photography)

Vocalist Mary Stallings opened the evening with a lively “I Love Being Here With You,” backed by an ensemble of top-notch high school students. And to close the concert, the ageless Herbie Hancock, in a trio setting, played “Maiden Voyage.” (As the man sitting next to me whispered afterward, “When you think of the thousands of times he’s played that piece, it’s incredible how he breathes new life into it.”)

In an emotional speech, Kline fought back tears as he accepted his award, saying he was “overwhelmed — never could I have imagined being recognized like this.” After a 20-strong, all-star encore of an up-tempo “I’ll Be Seeing You,” with vocalists Veronica Swift, McLorin Salvant, Rosanne Cash and Reeves, and with two drummers, plus four pianists sharing the 88 keys, it’s safe to say: none of us could have imagined it either.

The SFJAZZ Gala will be rebroadcast online on Sunday, May 7, at 5 p.m. Pacific time at SFJAZZ’s site.

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