Score One for San Jose Jazz

Have I complained about the San Jose Jazz Festival in these pages? Yes? I’ll do it again anyway.

Photo lifted from El Observador. Click for an article with a more positive outlook on the festival.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 or 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.

Source: San Jose Jazz; click to go thereThe 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.

Spirited Music in San Jose

I might as well be honest: I had a dread of being the only audience member at Works San Jose last night, where Jim Ryan brought in a couple of improvising bands.

But the show drew a handful of people, including some passers-by who saw and heard the music from the sidewalk — a very pleasant surprise. Downtown San Jose deserves credit for having some edgy art museums downtown, Works being one of them, but they’re overshadowed by the children’s museum and the Tech museum, and on weekends, by the dancing-and-alcohol nightlife that’s just blocks away.

Still, a few people showed up and seemed to like the experience. That’s great. Quite a few more onlookers lingered by the windows, one or two at a time.

They were drawn in by the music and the promise of an experimentally jazzlike band, but a few theatrics helped too.

The aesthetic behind Ryan’s Left Coast Improv Group includes improvised poetry and vocalizing, and Bob Marsh got up from his cello to deliver a poem about revolution. (“Is it in your socks? Do you wear it on your wrist?”) He then brought up a couple of audience members for an improvised faux-ballroom dance, showing off a little whimsy.

The Improv Group consisted of sax/flute, bassoon/sheng (Michael Cooke, from the SFCCO), two cellos (Marsh and Doug Carroll), trumpet (Darren Johnston), and Ryan drawing from a collection of small percussion. They played sublime stuff, mostly longer pieces. Carroll and Johnston took advantage of the gallery’s big, empty spaces by wandering around (yes, Carroll plays cello).

The first set came from the trio The Spirit Moves Us, with Ryan on sax/flute, Marsh on cello, and the one-named drummer Spirit. And Spirit does play a huge role in the band’s sound, with his free-jazzy style of long drum-rolling statements, often tough and stabbing.

It was terrific stuff, with the drums filling the echoey space. (In actuality, that can be a problem; I’ve seen shows where the drums eclipse everything because of the acoustics. But in a trio setting, with amplifiers for Marsh and for Ryan’s flute, it worked.) They did quieter pieces, too – Spirit busy on brushes, Ryan improvising on flute.

Ryan has put out a CD for The Spirit Moves Us on his own Jimzeen label. Hoping to give it a listen soon.

Music in San Jose!

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an improv show, or even an adventurous jazz show, in San Jose. I stopped even looking for such things years ago. Now I’ll get my chance, thanks to Jim Ryan.

There’s an art space called Works San Jose, at 451 S. First St., where Ryan will present two bands on Friday, July 10:

1. The Spirit Moves Us — The trio of Ryan (sax/flute/kalimba), Bob Marsh (cello), and the single-named Spirit (drums).

2. The Left Coast Improv Group — described as an “experimental chamber ensemble,” this is a resurrection of Ryan’s improvising combo, which was always made up of a rotating cast of characters. This time it’s a large group: cello, trombone, trumpet electronics, Michael Cooke doing his thing on the sheng again, and “others.”

A calendar listing can be found here.

Works San Jose seems to be the kind of arts space that fits experimental music — although it looks like the music events they’ve hosted there have been techno or singer/songwriter material. Which is in line with San Jose’s suburban nature.

Not to rag on Works. I’m thrilled they’re giving creative music a chance and would love to see more of it happen. It’s just that San Jose’s surrounding culture is more stifling than those of San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley. The San Jose Jazz Festival drives the knife even deeper; it’s well-meaning but tightly boxed in, consciously catering to the food-and-crafts summer crowd.

(The SJ Festival does try to give a nod to new directions, but they’re usually jazzy hybrids with hip-hop or world music, not free jazz. I’ll give them credit for booking Panthelion this year; that band sounds interesting.)

(Digressing further, this seems an appropriate spot to give a big, big thank you to The Blank Club just for being there. It’ll be host to The Melvins on the first night of the SJ Festival.)