For two weeks every fall, San Francisco hosts a world-class jazz festival. It's been called "one of America's premier cultural events" by the Los Angeles Times, "The crown jewel among American jazz festivals" by the Chicago Tribune and "The #1 jazz festival in the world" by London's Observer. But you don't have to wait until next fall to get a good jazz fix. Luckily SFJAZZ, the organization that presents the fall festival, hosts a series of concerts throughout the spring for aficionados and amateurs alike -- and I have to admit that I am one of the latter. There are a number of true jazz legends in the line-up, but also world music and bluegrass performers who highlight facets of the complex genre. In this way, SFJAZZ is equal parts nostalgic grandfather-type who tells you about the hep-cats who used to play with Coltrane and Miles Davis, and hipster college-station DJ who introduces you to amazing, obscure bands years before anyone else knows about them.
Here's what I mean: SFJAZZ opened their Spring Season this past weekend with two performances, Max Raabe and Palast Orchester at the Paramount in Oakland on Friday, and on Sunday, Tinariwen at the Palace of Fine Arts. Raabe is a Berliner who performs classics; his interpretation of that word stretches to include Tom Jones' "Sex Bomb" alongside songs from Weimar Republic films of the '20s and '30s. It's difficult to explain Tinariwen if you're not familiar: their sound alternately invites unlikely hybrid descriptions like bluesy-Berber-psych-rock -- or defies description altogether. The band mixes influences from the traditional music of the Taureg people, a North African nomadic tribe, with Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. They formed in a rebel camp in Mali in the late '70s, producing music they now describe as "propaganda" for the insurgent movement. Tinariwen's songs were recorded with rudimentary equipment and put on cassettes, which were passed around Africa for decades before the band burst on the world music scene with a performance at Mali's Festival in the Desert in 2001.
The Spring season's opening performances are just a couple helpful examples of SFJAZZ's eclectic but exquisitely curated offerings. Here are other picks for the upcoming season:
March 11: Ladysmith Black Mambazo at Congregation Sherith Israel
Ladysmith Black Mambazo is an all-male a capella group from South Africa, whose voices you might recognize if you're a fan of Paul Simon's Graceland (they can be heard on "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" and "Homeless"). The band sings Isicathamiya, a cross between traditional Zulu music and traditional European a capella. The result is a relative of the African-American slave spiritual inspired by the melodies black workers sing while forced to work South African diamond mines. The band is considered so emblematic of South Africa that they were invited by Nelson Mandela to sing at both his inauguration and Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.
March 19: Keith Jarrett Solo at the Davies Symphony Hall
Wynton Marsalis said, "In Jazz, improvisation isn't a matter of just making any ol' thing up. Jazz, like any language, has its own grammar and vocabulary." If jazz is a language, Keith Jarrett could be its poet laureate. His solo shows are completely improvised, and even though he has played with legends like Miles Davis and Chick Corea, when jazz enthusiasts talk about Jarrett, they emphasize the singularity of his ability, maintaining he is one of the best, in terms of artistry and musicianship, living today.
In April, both Punch Brothers with Chris Thile (4/18) and Booker T. (4/23) play San Francisco's Herbst Theater. Punch Brothers is a progressive bluegrass band with heavy classical influences -- in 2007, they performed a 40-minute, 4-movement suite composed by mandolin prodigy Chris Thile at Carnegie Hall. Booker T. is probably best known for recording the iconic soul instrumental "Green Onions" with the M.G.'s -- a tune that seems to pop up everywhere from movies to video games, and on all time best songs lists. (Recognize it?). Last year, Booker T. put out Potato Hole, a collaboration with Neil Young and alt-country rockers The Drive-By Truckers; the record won Best Pop Instrumental Album at the 2010 Grammys.
Also not to be missed: Legendary saxophonist Pharoah Saunders at Grace Cathedral, April 16; "Brazil's Bob Dylan," Caetano Veloso, at the Nob Hill Masonic Center, April 17; Sexmob's pop covers, with DJ Olive at the YBCA, May 25.
SFJAZZ's Spring Season 2010 runs through June 12, 2010 at various Bay Area locations. For tickets and information visit sfjazz.org.