Jazz at a Dark Moment: the 2023 San Jose Jazz Winter Fest Page 2

Jason Lindner. Photo: Robert Birnbach.

Igor Osypov; Jason Lindner; Brandon Farmer
Those who had heard Igor Osypov in the Tabard with the high school band and John Hollenbeck's George needed to hear more. That opportunity came in a presentation in a club called Mama Kin. The band was Osypov on guitar and electric bass, Jason Lindner on keyboards, and Brandon Farmer on drums. They met for the first time at their only rehearsal on the day of the concert.

Osypov is one of the most creative under-40 guitarists in Europe. He is one of the few Ukrainian jazz musicians who is somewhat known in the United States, because of his association with American alto saxophonist Logan Richardson. Lindner, from Brooklyn, has a large, diverse resumé. Suddenly finding themselves together, these two free spirits did not so much integrate their musical personalities as juxtapose them. Lindner, presiding over an arsenal of keyboards, loopers, phasers, and reverb units, raised his own hell. Osypov matched Lindner's sonic extremity with soaring, spiraling ascents. (Farmer laid down insidious backbeats under both.) The arc of their uninterrupted 75-minute set bent toward frenzy, but it sometimes went quiet. Lindner even offered interludes of delicate, shimmering acoustic piano. Their concert was many things, including fury, noise, stasis, and ecstatic catharsis.

Orrin Evans with bassist Eric Revis of the Orrin Evans Trio. "Smitty" Smith, on drums, isn't shown. Photo: Mark Anenberg.

The Orrin Evans Trio
Some bookings did not include collaborations with Ukrainians. But the artists involved, in their spoken words, revealed that their music was meant to proclaim support for the cause. Orrin Evans played a strong set at the Hammer Theatre Center. It was big news in 2018 when he took over the piano chair in one of the most popular groups in jazz, The Bad Plus. But now Evans is back on his own. He played in San Jose with his trio (Eric Revis, bass; Marvin "Smitty" Smith, drums). He is an immensely entertaining musician, not because he is easy on his audience but because he keeps throwing them curveballs. He plays many styles of jazz piano, often in the same tune. The challenge is to stay with him when he shifts personalities. But he is such a super-salesman of the piano that it is hard to say no to him.

Kassa Overall. Photo: Robert Birnbach.

Kassa Overall
Just a few blocks from the Hammer Theatre, immediately following Evans's set, Kassa Overall appeared in an intimate venue called the SJZ Break Room, actually a small performance space set up in the offices of San Jose Jazz, on First Street.

Overall is a drummer, singer, rapper, and practitioner of what his website calls "hip-hop production techniques." Even jazz purists, who normally flee from artists so described, have to be impressed by Overall's undeniable chops as a drummer. While his music indeed reflects a hip-hop aesthetic, it embeds pop elements into a genuine, ferocious jazz rhythmic environment. His band contained three percussionists: himself, Bendji Allonce, and Tomoki Sanders, who mostly played reeds. (He is the son of the late Pharoah Sanders.) Ian Fink was on keyboards and Giulio Xavier Cetto on bass. Guest vocalist J. Hoard, an explosive performer, would have stolen most shows. Overall's music, a blend of the gut-level visceral and the cleverly intricate, won over the young crowd in the SJZ Break Room.

Mark Guiliana. Photo: Robert Birnbach.

The Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet
Another artist who straddles genres is Mark Guiliana, but instead of blending his two styles, he operates a separate ensemble for each: an electric groove band he calls Beat Music and a straight-ahead acoustic group he calls the Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet. With the latter, he played the SJZ Break Room. It is a band whose approach is so measured and atmospheric and lyrical that it could be called a chamber ensemble. Jason Rigby is one of the most under-acknowledged tenor saxophonists in jazz. With his simple, patient, pensive, plaintive melodies, he casts spells.

Guiliana has been widely recognized as one of the most technically advanced drummers to enter jazz in the new millennium. Yet he did not take a solo all night. Instead, he energized this subtle music from within. With his intricate patterns, he continuously introduced varied forms of pressure that pushed the other three players to dig deeper. On "A Path to Bliss," Paul Cornish showed why Guiliana trusted him with a chair in his band that had previously been occupied by special pianists like Fabian Almazan and Shai Maestro. Cornish's long solo intro created striking harmonies in layers of stacked chords.

When the set was over, Guiliana told the audience that his band had played with an awareness that the festival "had meaning beyond music."

Ambrose Akinmusire with Rafiq Bhatia on guitar, Mac laptop, and various black boxes. Photo: Robert Birnbach.

Ambrose Akinmusire; Rafiq Bhatia
The most decorated musician in San Jose was Ambrose Akinmusire. In a relatively short time—about 15 years—he has become, by critical consensus, the most important trumpet player in jazz. His reputation is based on a small number of albums on the Blue Note label recorded by his quintet and quartet. At the Tabard Theatre, he appeared with a new duo partner. Guitarist Rafiq Bhatia's claim to fame is that he plays in a trio, Son Lux, that was nominated for a Grammy for their soundtrack to the film Everything Everywhere All at Once. (Son Lux did not win the Grammy, but a few days after San Jose Jazz Winter Fest ended, the film won the Oscar for Best Picture.)

It was a coup for the festival to get Akinmusire. He lives in nearby Oakland and was eager to come because his Ukraine connections run deep. He had played in Kyiv several times, including at Olga Bekenshtein's "Am I Jazz?" festival. He taught at a school in Bern, Switzerland, where trumpeter Yakiv Tsvietinskyi was his student.

In the program, Rafiq Bhatia was listed on guitar. But, like so many of today's guitarists, he had his Mac laptop and several other black boxes close at hand—which meant he had electronic orchestras at his fingertips. This entirely improvised duo concert occupied a sonic landscape with no rules and few precedents. Akinmusire began with long calls, extended strands of sound that sometimes broke, from emotion. Bhatia, through loops and delays, surrounded him with a vast choir of guitars. Akinmusire's lines were inner cries of mourning. Bhatia's roars and crashes were bombs falling on Ukraine. Sometimes Bhatia's relentless noise was exhausting. Sometimes, when he played his guitar alone, it sounded like weeping. Sometimes Akinmusire's shattering outbreaks sounded like battle cries. Sometimes the music faded into silence. But then it would flare up again, in Bhatia's keenings and Akinmusire's stabs. It was music that was willing to let its questions linger, unanswered, in the air.

It seems unlikely that many in the Tabard would sleep peacefully that night. Dark forces had been visited upon them that might haunt their dreams.

A crowd gathers for the raising of the Ukrainian flag on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Joanne Chartier.

The Legacy
What did the people at San Jose Jazz hope to achieve with their "Counterpoint with Ukraine"? Brendan Rawson explained: "We had to ask ourselves how we could contribute to this cause. Our ideas have evolved. First, there is the fact of how little we know of Ukraine in the United States. People may know about grain and sunflower oil. But we wanted to put a spotlight on Ukrainian culture—not as folk art but as contemporary, vibrant cultural life and character. These Ukrainian musicians are doing some really cool stuff, taking an American art form and making it their own. We wanted to give an American audience a fuller appreciation of Ukrainian identity. That's why we added films and visual art.

"One thing I've learned is that these Ukrainian musicians here on the ground have a lot on their shoulders. They continue to get hit with the story line, 'It's not a real country, it's just an artifact of Soviet disintegration.' These musicians are culture-bearers. We want them to know that there is a world out there that cares."

On February 24, the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a ceremony took place at San Jose City Hall. The crowd in attendance contained many adults and children wrapped in yellow and blue Ukrainian flags. Igor Osypov and Yakiv Tsvietinskyi played a free, fervent jazz version of their national anthem as their flag was raised. The City Hall building was illuminated in yellow and blue.

The mayor of San Jose, Matt Mahan, addressed the gathering: "Today we express our solidarity with the people of Ukraine who have suffered unimaginable violence and who continue to fight for their liberty. We stand with those fighting for their lives, liberty, and cultural sovereignty."

The last words belong to Olga Bekenshtein: "From the moment I was invited to be co-curator of this festival, my idea was to show something different from all the stories out there. There are so many stories in the news about how Ukrainians are fighting so bravely. But I wanted to show what it is that we are fighting to protect—what it is that we are trying to save."

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Never mind. (Tried to delete post but I don't see how.)