I'm flat-out exhausted, writing these words -- happily so, after listening my way through a couple dozen shows over the course of three days at the 24th annual San Jose Jazz Festival. As the festival moves toward next year's quarter-century anniversary, San Jose Jazz is an organization in transition, dealing with the crummy economy (and the festival's lack of a major sponsor), yet showing real commitment to jazz in many of its shape-shifting forms. This festival had range, from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to the Cookers' hard bop and the hip-hop flavors of bassist Derrick Hodge.
Having criticized the festival in recent years for its lack of focus -- and lack of jazz -- I'm glad to write that previous sentence. This summer's festival (Aug. 9-11) included much deep programming and a creative approach to finding new revenue. It introduced separate-pay concerts at several indoor venues -- "extra" shows, not covered by the festival's daily charge -- and that turned out to be a good idea. Instead of filing in and out of those events at midstream (as often happens at festivals, where people sample this and that), folks tended to pay and stay, to focus and listen. It made the music better.
Here's my day-by-day take on the festival's best moments.
7 p.m.: I walked into the Blackbird Tavern's cozy music space, one of the festival's new venues. It was jammed, the crowd tilted toward youthful, and the music had a warm-swaying world-music vibe. This was the Gypsy All-Stars project, featuring members of the popular Gipsy Kings (George and Mario Reyes) in a new pop fusion: rumba flamenca meets North India, from whence the Roma people emerged long ago. It got trippy; first time I've heard looped tablas.
8 p.m.: Run, run, run to Cafe Stritch, down the block on South First Street. This is where the weekend's most inspired music happened; technically it was not part of the festival, but it felt like an extension of the event. What was so special? Trombonist Steve Turre led a sextet in a three-night tribute to his old employer, the late great Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and the results were magical. It was almost like partying with Rahsaan at Keystone Korner or the Village Vanguard 40 years ago: "Serenade to a Cuckoo," "Bright Moments," "Theme for the Eulipions." Blues and jubilation.
9 p.m.: The Clifford Brown-Max Roach Project: A labor of love, featuring trumpeter Scotty Barnholt in the Brownie role and drummer Clayton Cameron in Roach's shoes, performing classic numbers by a classic '50s quintet. Again at the Blackbird, which buzzed like a real jazz club.
12 p.m.: Super-power-surge hip-hop multi-groove music at the San Jose Rep by genius drummer Dafnis Prieto and his Proverb Trio with Jason Lindner on keyboards and rhythm-rhymes by emcee Kokayi Issa. All spontaneously improvised and mightily impressive -- but a barrage, too much for noontime. My caffeine had yet to kick in.
2 p.m.: The Rebirth Brass Band performed under sunny skies on the Main Stage in Cesar Chavez Plaza. These guys can cook even when they're dialing it in, which I suspect they were doing. Still, much fun: "Exactly Like You," "I Found a New Baby" and the rumba-boogie of Professor Longhair's "Mardi Gras in New Orleans."
4 p.m.: Arturo O'Farrill and his Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra turned in the festival's most cogent set thus far, again on the Main Stage. No feel-good pep talks for the crowd, just music, ambitious and suitelike with feed-the-fire percussionists and excellent soloists. And power: This band is like a train -- that dances.
6 p.m.: Oh, man, Dr. Lonnie Smith's music is like a seductive dance, and he knows where it's going. What an improviser: His B-3 organ solos feel so natural, emerging as the musical equivalents to sentences and paragraphs; it really is as if he's talking to you, laughing, teasing. A great show at the Rep with his superb trio, featuring guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Jamire Williams, Smith's grandson.
9 p.m.: Saxophonist Yos- vany Terry performed with his hard-hitting quartet at the Blackbird Tavern. First, it felt like maze music, an advanced meeting of Afro-Cuban and jazz concepts, rhythmically and harmonically rigorous and a little daunting. But gradually, it opened up; it became grounding and hypnotic, like ritual, like much of the best jazz since the '60s. When a samba emerged toward the set's close, it was like a party and a blessing, both. Obed Calvaire on drums!
2 p.m.: After all these decades, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is a reproduction, a nostalgia trip, cashing in on memories of where it all began. Correct? No! These guys were hot, having fun, and they got the crowd up on its feet. And what a crack-up: I bet the band's big, dancing tuba player could fill a hot-air balloon with his breaths.
4 p.m.: Derrick Hodge. He put his electric bass front and center, like a horn, practically crooning melody at Blackbird Tavern. His band's version of Joe Henderson's "Black Narcissus," sounded as beautiful as ever -- but was set to a luxuriously stretchy hip-hop beat led by drummer Mark Colenburg. When Hodge played a solo suite of tunes on his bass, starting with George Harrison's "Something," it flowed like a series of etudes, and the crowd was rapt, totally silent.
9 p.m.: The Cookers. This hard-bop septet plays go-to-the-mountaintop music: the thunder of tenor saxophonist Billy Harper and drummer Billy Hart, the lightning of trumpeter Eddie Henderson and pianist George Cables. You hear Blakey, Coltrane, the blues: soul music, played by some of the best players of the '60s and '70s. They finished their set at Blackbird Tavern by going to "The Core" -- the name of the tune by Freddie Hubbard, and a fit way to close out the festival.
Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069.