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Yoshi’s steps up its game with free-jazz fest 

Wednesday, Jun 17 2009
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Yoshi's has faced a bedeviling challenge since opening a second location in the Fillmore District in 2007. How can the venue maintain its reputation as a pioneering jazz club while drawing a sustainable audience to two locations? After initially spreading crowds too thinly by sharing many of the touring acts that passed through the Jack London site, the Fillmore outpost tried to diversify its lineup this year by including Americana, R&B, and rock artists.

The flirtation with nonjazz programming failed to draw big crowds, leading to the departure of Bill Kubeczko (the former director of Minneapolis' Cedar Cultural Center who was hired to helm the club's new direction) after only a few months. The experiment also squeezed out the more adventurous jazz that was as much of a Yoshi's staple as straight-ahead swing. Outside of a March visit from avant-noise iconoclast John Zorn, fans of experimental sounds have generally looked to the Luggage Store Gallery or Oakland's 21 Grand to satisfy their live music needs.

That all could be changing with the recent hiring of Jason Olaine as artistic director for Yoshi's San Francisco. He helped guide Yoshi's original Claremont Avenue location to its ascendancy during the '90s prior to taking a job with Verve Records in New York City late in the decade. During his previous tenure, Olaine craftily balanced popular attractions like pianist McCoy Tyner's storied all-star residencies with edgier fare such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, and Cecil Taylor. "Even at the old Yoshi's, we were of the mindset that the jazz we were going to present wasn't going to be restricted to the Lincoln Center definition," he says.

This all-embracing approach is apparent in the San Francisco club's June schedule. In addition to the debut of two new trios anchored by former Ornette Coleman bassist Charlie Haden, Yoshi's welcomes a full slate of free-jazz giants from both coasts for the inaugural Go Left Fest.

The impetus for the event came from a similar celebration in Manhattan. Noted Bay Area saxophonist Oluyemi Thomas approached Olaine about bringing his collaboration with pioneering free-jazz drummer Sunny Murray to Yoshi's. The expatriate Murray was set to make a rare stateside appearance at the Vision Festival, New York City's annual avant-garde blowout.

That idea quickly blossomed. "I started thinking, 'What if not only Sunny Murray came out, but we got some other [Vision Festival] people to come out too?'" Olaine says. A few phone calls later, his concept of bringing together a coterie of left-field jazz mavericks started falling into place.

Go Left headliner Marshall Allen is an alto sax firebrand and current leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra, who has become one of the towering figures in free jazz during his 50-plus years with the group. This week, his first onstage collaboration with volcanic piano phenom Matthew Shipp and talented bassist Joe Morris should be momentous. Adding a literary voice to the proceedings, Oakland's poet laureate, Ishmael Reed, offers his ruminations on race and cultural politics with backing from local luminaries Roger Glenn (tenor sax), Mary Watkins (piano), and Aswut Rodriguez (guitar). In addition to planned sets from renowned duos based here (pianist Myra Melford and bassist Mark Dresser) and abroad (New York City–based trombonist Roswell Rudd and pianist Lafayette Harris), the festival's open-ended format is designed to encourage exploration of new ideas.

This ambitious collection of fringe artists might put the fear of empty seats into some club operators, but Yoshi's S.F. is showing faith in both the city's sense of adventure and the strength of the festival lineup. "I love the idea of extending Go Left into a monthly kind of residency or a thing we do every quarter," Olaine says. Free-jazz cacophony may sound like an odd solution for the struggling venue, but daring programming like Go Left could pay off culturally for the club and fans alike.

About The Author

Dave Pehling

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