What do Splatter Trio, Sheila E., and J.S. Bach have in common? How about the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Gospel Hummingbirds, and New Dealers? Still don't know? Add John Santos & the Machete Ensemble, Jimmy Smith, and the Cecil Taylor Orchestra for a small portion of the diverse programming for the 13th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival.
Jazz? you may be musing. Indeed, this year's festivities venture far beyond the traditional parameters of the genre, as Jazz in the City strives to offer a little something for everyone — from the straight-ahead to blues, funk, Latin, acid jazz, classical, rap, gospel, R&B, bebop, and avant-garde — marking the 17-day event as one of the most dynamic of its kind in the nation, despite a scant two gigs devoted to the progressive fringe and a conspicuous lack of representation from the Bay Area's flourishing Asian-American music community.
Special tributes include a 100th-anniversary homage to the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith; a 75th-anniversary “Images of Bird” jam for Charlie Parker; and the all-star “California Blues: A Tribute to Swingtime Records.” The two-day 11th Street Block Party promises to get the booty bumpin' with organ funkster Jimmy Smith's Damn!, former Coltrane protege John Tchicai's curious avant-groove amalgam the Archetypes, and local hip-boppers like Alphabet Soup and Junk.
Other festival highlights include Randy Weston's solo and ensemble salutes to the “Spirits of Our Ancestors”; a spicy Pan-Latin “Homenaje” to conga virtuoso Armando Peraza; and the adventurous collaboration of skewed eclectics the Splatter Trio and forward-pushing NYC pianist Myra Melford, a must-see for enthusiasts of the improv ritual. But the audacious centerpiece of this year's fest is Cecil Taylor's new composition for a three-dozen-deep orchestra, to premiere at the Center for the Arts.
In a recent phone interview, the world-renowned pianist declines to reveal details about the in-progress work, obliquely noting, “The germination of this is something that in one sense has been in my mind for a number of years. It was just a question of having the forces, the positive forces moving, and then engendering the act of making music.”
Those positive forces first came together in the Bay Area last January when Taylor asked bass player Lisle Ellis to organize a big band of top local talent for daytime rehearsals during the jazz master's weeklong quartet stint at Yoshi's Nitespot. Given Ellis' experience in Taylor's large and small ensembles, he functioned as the primary rehearsal director for the sessions, running the different orchestral sections through their parts and acting as an intermediary between the composer and the players.
During one session toward the close of the week, I glimpsed local luminaries like percussionist William Winant, bassist Mark Izu, and reed player Oleyumi Thomas wailing within a complex maelstrom of shifting moods, stacked harmonies, and wildly syncopated rhythms. The energy in the room reeled at a fever pitch as Miya Masaoka's koto, Henry Kaiser's guitar, and Ijeoma Thomas' poetic vocalizations punctuated the heady mix with expanded timbral nuances. When asked where the music now stands, Taylor replies with laconic evasiveness, “I'm working on it.”
Throughout the first half of our conversation, the iconoclastic pianist seems acutely wary of revealing himself, measuring each response as if he isn't quite convinced that I am on his side. Given the barrage of controversy and derision Taylor's music has received (and continues to draw) from the jazz establishment ever since his debut, Jazz Advance, was released in 1956, these reservations are not without merit.
Though Taylor has blazed the path for keyboard over the past 40 years and was awarded both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Genius Grant, officials at “proper” venues like Lincoln Center have labeled the pianist “not jazz” and have attempted to keep him on the outs. Last year, Taylor and a tiny but sympathetic production company called Sausages at the Opera bucked the system and rented out Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall with $15,000 of their own money for a 65th-birthday solo concert, but, unfortunately, sold only half the seats.
“The most important thing about that was, no matter what negative forces were about, the response of the people who were there was quite formidable,” Taylor says. “And, indeed, it diminished all that was negative, really.”
“There are writers, for instance, whom I would say have been extraordinarily destructive,” he continues. “But they are working in concert with certain corporate interests, who are, after all, interested in that which is viable, i.e., music that I heard played in a much superior fashion 50 years ago. … Those prophets of the dead canon are always trying to denigrate that which they choose willfully not to understand, or it's beyond their capability to understand.”
So how does one approach an understanding of Cecil Taylor's unique system of organizing sound? “It's a matter of developing one's senses to respond to things that are not mundane. … I'm talking about a state of the highest elevation, which means that it is a ceremonial celebration,” Taylor stresses.
Taylor calls his mission a lifelong “commitment to attempt to become a shaman.” One listen, and you may never endure the mundane again.
The Cecil Taylor Orchestra plays Thurs, Oct. 26, 7 & 9:30 p.m., at Center for the Arts Theatre at Yerba Buena Gardens; call 788-SFJF for tickets and complete S.F. Jazz Festival information.