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North Beach Jazz Festival
Since the deaths of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler in the late 1960s, it's difficult to say who's been the most important tenor saxophone player of the free jazz movement. But perhaps no one's been more influential than Pharoah Sanders, the legendary tenor who kicks off the fourth annual North Beach Jazz Festival with its most ambitious, highest-profile production yet. He'll be the headliner for an unprecedented evening of jazz atop Telegraph Hill at the base of Coit Tower, along with Bay Area stars Ed Kelly, Robert Stewart, and the Marcus Shelby Ensemble.

From the time he first emerged as one of the key collaborators on Coltrane's late experimental piece Ascension, Sanders has insisted on working with overtly African and Near Eastern themes. His strident, furious style pushed the boundaries of territory already being explored by Coltrane, Ayler, and Archie Shepp. Sanders always relied heavily on the music of Coltrane -- one of his most acclaimed recordings is the 1989 Blues for Coltrane -- but at times he's struggled to find a cohesive style of his own. His latest releases have found him blending everything from world beat and tribal chanting to hip hop and New Age sounds, but what holds it all together is Sanders' ability to soar instantly over the rhythm from sweet, meditative streams of music to beautifully choppy, atonal flapping and honking.

Among those influenced by Sanders is pianist Ed Kelly, with whom he collaborated on a 1978 album. Kelly has a rolling, two-handed gospel style of playing that brings to mind some of the greats of the Hammond B-3. Kelly, in turn, has been a strong influence and teacher for Bay Area musicians, particularly sax player Robert Stewart, with whom he frequently gigs at clubs around town. Like many of the "young lions" of the saxophone, Stewart, 28, who just released his second album on Quincy Jones' Qwest label, often wavers between explosive free jazz and a more commercial sound, but there's no denying his virtuosity on the horn using either form.

Another rising star on the local scene is Marcus Shelby, whose group Black Note has released four critically acclaimed albums on Columbia Records. The Marcus Shelby Ensemble, which draws heavily on jazz tradition from Ellington to Mingus and Monk, has been getting steadily sharper in its two years of touring the jazz club circuit all over California.

All of this is on tap for what festival organizers Alistair Monroe and Herve Ernest claim is the first attempt at putting on music atop Telegraph Hill; and that's just opening night. The following week will include shows at North Beach clubs such as Enrico's, the Velvet Lounge, and Pearl's, as well as the usual free shows on Grant Avenue and an all-day jam at Washington Square Park. Just about every aspect of the local creative music scene will be featured, with traditional groups and trios, salsa music, DJs, and a tribute to John Coltrane scheduled throughout the week.

-- David Cook

Pharoah Sanders plays Sunday, July 26, at 7 p.m. atop Telegraph Hill at Coit Tower. Tickets are $35-40; call 267-6943. Ed Kelly & the Jazz Knights featuring Robert Stewart and the Marcus Shelby Ensemble open. The North Beach Jazz Festival continues through Aug. 1 at several indoor and outdoor venues.

 
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