Square foot for square foot, no venue in San Francisco has made a bigger impact over the past 15 years than the Red Poppy Art House. A storefront Mission District performance space and studio run on a shoestring budget, the venue has nurtured a fascinating array of hybrid artists, such as the Carnatic jazz of VidyA and the Ethio-soul of Meklit. Two recent albums by artists associated with the Red Poppy make it clear that the club hasn’t lost its mojo.
For her first album, Tiffany Austin relies on a time-tested strategy that alto sax great Jackie McLean once described as “new wine in old bottles.” A graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Law, she’s spent the past few years paying dues on the Bay Area jazz scene, singing with established bandleaders like bassist Marcus Shelby, trombonist Adam Theis and saxophonist Howard Wiley.
Her new album, "Nothing But Soul," came out of a 2013 SFJAZZ Hotplate concert exploring the songs of Hoagy Carmichael. She and Wiley came up with unfussy arrangements that refashioned some of Carmichael’s best-loved songs to fit the luxuriant contours of her voice.
She kicks off the album with a casually swinging version of “Stardust,” set to a lilting two-beat feel that doesn’t dilute the enduring power of Carmichael’s soaring melody. Her fleet and almost frantic take on “Baltimore Oriole” captures the bleak vision of abandonment behind the cutesy avian lyrics. The album’s most unexpected track is her barrelhouse sprint through Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” a tune that Carmichael evidentially covered in 1956.
Reimagining standards is just one facet of Austin’s creativity. She spent a year as artist in residence at the Red Poppy Art House, putting her own spin on songs gleaned from early Creole recordings from Louisiana. Accompanied by some of the best jazz musicians in the Bay Area -- pianist Glen Pearson, bassist Ron Belcher and drummer Sly Randolph -- Austin delivers an impressive debut that only hints at her potential.
Where Austin employs a canny strategy in approaching familiar material, Oakland accordionist Rob Reich merely has to play a few notes to establish his singular identity. A versatile composer who has thrived in many situations, from writing action-packed circus music to setting e.e. cummings verse to music in the chamber ensemble Tin Hat, Reich delivers a dozen original compositions on his entrancing new album "Shadowbox."
The opening track, “Night Heron,” embodies so much of what makes his music memorable and evocative. There’s the subway rumble of Ben Goldberg’s contra alto clarinet and Todd Sickafoose’s elastic bass lines. There’s Eric Garland’s subtle but assertive cymbal touch, and guitarist Ila Cantor’s ominous notes that hang in the air.
Reich plays piano on several tracks, too, but it’s the tunes that pair his accordion with Goldberg’s clarinet that I keep coming back to, like “How Now,” a piece that makes me think of Thelonious Monk walking through the countryside in Eastern Europe.
Using his own particular alchemy to combine various folk, jazz and classical elements, Reich creates soundscapes that linger like a half-remembered scent. It’s a realm where the accordion sheds many, but not all, of its Old World connotations, a Shadowbox brimming with half-buried feelings and memories just out of reach.