The summertime festival is great if you’re into pop, hip-hop, swing, or Latin jazz. Deeper jazz — not to mention anything off the main drag — is out. Even smooth jazz was hard to find, last time I checked.
Yes, I’m being a snob. And hating is easy; you could argue I should join SJ Jazz and make my opinion heard. But be realistic. The festival wants open-air crowds of smiling families and happy first dates. Danceable, drinkable bands have pushed even bebop and Coltrane clones to the fringes of the agenda. Suggestions of free jazz and cerebral quasi-classical improvising would be met with hard stares. Plus, I’d honestly feel bad about trying to rock the boat without first putting in my dues as a volunteer — and if I had that kind of time, I’d still be doing my KZSU show.
Besides, I don’t need for San Jose to have an avant-garde angle. I’ve already got the likes of the Switchboard Festival, SF Offside, the sfSound concerts (including the upcoming Tape Music Festival), Other Minds, the Outsound New Music Summit … and other options I’ve just insulted by leaving them off the list. There are also the weekly and monthly series that keep forging ahead, as you can see on the calendars at transbaycalendar.org or bayimproviser.com. A festival crowd would be nice to provide for some of these deserving artists, but San Jose is a commerce town. The invigorated downtown, heartening as it is to see, is all about prime-time attractions.
Not that they never tried. It was probably 20 years ago, literally, that I spent a day at the jazz festival and saw a solo pianist at the Museum of Art. Can’t recall the name, but he was an Eastern European. And he put on an exhilarating set of dazzling, classical-influenced playing, full of big low-register chords and relentless hammering. (By the way, I like San Jose’s museum. It’s technology-obsessed, as the whole community is, but the museum at least presents its technology with question marks.)
Surprises like that pianist have become rare for the San Jose Jazz Festival, although I’d bet they’d be open to someone like Lisa Mezzacappa who’s played Monterey. I have to admit, too, that San Jose Jazz has a sincere interest in world music (the fusion-y, westernized kind, at least), and admirably, they support school jazz bands. But if I want to get creative music going in my hometown — and the little voice in my head always chastises me for never even trying — I’d be better off finding a small South-of-First Street gallery that’s open to a DIY series. Maybe someday.
My point in writing this, though, is more hopeful: San Jose Jazz has cracked the mold. For their winter mini-festival in early March, they’re bringing in Vijay Iyer.
In other words, the organization has booked someone I actually want to see.
The album Accelerando landed Iyer at the top of some prominent mainstream “best-of” lists, so he’s actually an obvious festival choice. But he’s still Vijay Iyer. He makes exciting music. He slashed-and-burned with the trio Fieldwork. And his presence gives me a reason to actually attend a downtown San Jose jazz show. (The show is Friday, March 15.)
And while I’m down there, maybe I’ll even swing by South First Street and daydream about that South Bay series.