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On The Corner Masthead


December 16, 2016 | by Richard Scheinin

SFJAZZ pays tribute to four Bay Area legends: Tony Williams, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson and John Handy


Zakir Hussain – master of the tabla, pioneer of world music – is talking about connections, musical connections. In essence, they are conversations, spoken through notes and rhythms, he says, no different than sitting down at the lunch counter with friends to talk about one’s children. He has learned this lesson so many times since moving from India to Marin County 45 years ago, jamming with the Grateful Dead, performing with Ali Akbar Khan, and then striking up a connection, in the early-1980s, with a new organization called Jazz in the City, later to be known as SFJAZZ. That connection has birthed a world of musical conversation for Hussain, who remembers his 1990 duo encounter at Grace Cathedral with saxophonist Joe Henderson, who taught him “to create from a blank slate, to play the music as it reveals itself, letting it out, feeling its energy – something so fabulous.” That led him to pursue more duo concerts, again presented by SFJAZZ, first with saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and later with Charles Lloyd, who advised him to tune his tabla to “the key of the universe.” Now there was a connection. And through the years, there have been so many other encounters, with drummers Steve Smith and Eric Harland, with saxophonist Joshua Redman -- on and on it goes, a web of relationships that runs deep.

THE GALA (Jan. 18)
“Now we are family,” says Hussain, who will receive the SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement Award at the organization’s 2017 Gala. All kinds of family will be there to cheer for Hussain and join him in musical conversation, including saxophonists Redman and Joe Lovano, the Kronos Quartet, drummers Harland, Cindy Blackman Santana and John Santos, as well as the SFJAZZ Collective. Hussain hints that he will explore the duo setting once again – maybe with Redman, maybe with Lovano – but mostly promises the sound of surprise: “To let the moment dictate how the conversation takes shape.”


Much of the cast, including Hussain, will stay around for the next four nights as the organization celebrates its fifth season in the SFJAZZ Center with a string of programs spotlighting four legendary artists who have called the Bay Area home: drummer Tony Williams, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and reed master John Handy. For each, there are more stories to tell, linking them to the region, to the organization, to one another – more connections, more strands in the web. “These are the people who helped get us here,” says Randall Kline, who founded and directs SFJAZZ. “They helped establish the vibe of what we were and would become.” If the chemistry is right and the four concerts ignite, the concert hall will be “infused with the spirit” of these four incomparable musicians.

Arguably jazz’s greatest prodigy, the drummer joined Miles Davis’s group at age 17 in 1963. He explored the avant-garde. He went electric. He lived for years in Pacifica and San Anselmo and sat on an early iteration of the SFJAZZ board of directors.

The drum god went on to study composition at UC Berkeley, and, in 1990, SFJAZZ commissioned him to compose a piece for string quartet (Kronos), piano (Herbie Hancock) and percussion (Williams himself). It was performed at the Herbst Theatre, part of a concert that also featured Williams’ electric trio and acoustic quintet. Before the show, Kline chatted with Williams offstage and was momentarily perplexed when he heard the quintet doing its sound-check -- with a drummer, a good one. “I thought, man, that sounds an awful lot like Tony,” he recalls. “I also thought, `Who would have the guts to fill Tony’s chair?’”

It was Cindy Blackman Santana, a protégé of Williams. Since his death in 1997, she has been on a mission to explain his genius to the world, recording his music and leading bands inspired by Williams’ electric Lifetime group, including at SFJAZZ. The mission continues at this show, of which she is musical director. Blackman Santana – who lives much of the year in Marin with her husband Carlos Santana – hopes to explore key phases of Williams’ career. “That whole ball of energy” that was Tony Williams, she says, was only one aspect of his musical personality. He was a chaser of beauty, a sound innovator, his formidable flow filled with “little subtleties, the in-between things that he’s doing. He had an incredible ear for picking out cymbals that sounded like a symphony when they were played together. People just don’t know.’”

Which leads her to tell this story: When Williams replaced drummer Jimmy Cobb in Davis’s group, he gave Cobb a cymbal as a gift. In the mid-‘80s, Cobb passed that cymbal on to Blackman Santana, who called Williams to ask if he approved. He did. She held the cymbal up to the phone and gave it a tap. “Oh yeahhhh!” he said, with a growl of pleasure, recognizing its sound after 20-plus years. “Dark and pretty.”

ImageThree great tenor saxophonists will help pay tribute to this late titan of the instrument, who called San Francisco home. Joshua Redman, who grew up in Berkeley and understands Henderson’s impact, will direct this evening’s program. (Redman goes way back with SFJAZZ, to 1984, when he was a 15-year-old at Berkeley High School, performing with its jazz band.) David Sanchez, who has arranged and played Henderson’s compositions as a member of the SFJAZZ Collective, once described himself as “baptized” in Joe’s “beautiful, dark, liquefied sound.” Joe Lovano, who preceded Sanchez in the Collective, remembers the Sunday matinee at Boston’s Jazz Workshop in the early 1970s, when, at age 18, he sat in with Henderson: “What a thrill, to feel his beautiful energy, to hear his sound and inspired solos. It’s something that keeps me inspired to this day.”

Henderson performed many times for SFJAZZ, with his small groups and big band, with the Kronos Quartet and Bobby Hutcherson. He always set the bar for other musicians: “It was the way he stretched out and explored his instrument, always touching on the inner music of whatever tune it was,” Lovano says. “And as a late teen, that really set me on my own path of trying to tell my own story. Joe loved to play and he drew you in because of that, and he basically elevated every musical situation -- always generous to so many young cats. You grow up listening to masters like that and learn what it actually takes to get yourself together on your horn. He was one of the baddest cats ever.”

The vibraphonist’s death in August at age 75 was a blow to the jazz world (he was one of its greatest improvisers), to the Bay Area music scene (his playing embodied its freedom, its open-minded ethos) and to SFJAZZ (he was in many ways its heart).

Image“Every note was an adventure for Bobby,” says vibraphonist Stefon Harris, who succeeded Hutcherson in the SFJAZZ Collective in 2007 and will direct this tribute. “He was the most emotionally articulate musician to ever play the instrument. Sometimes he would make it sound as if he were weeping, at other times literally as if he were laughing. He found a way to express the depths of his experiences – to the point that there was no separation between the way he played and the way he lived, and what was created became a sort of absolute beauty.”

Hutcherson, who lived in Montara, 20 miles south of San Francisco, first performed for SFJAZZ in 1984. (He played a set of duets with pianist George Cables.) In 1998, he shared the stage at the Masonic Auditorium with Milt Jackson and Harris, then in his mid-20s, for a program titled “Good Vibes: The Heritage of Jazz Vibraphone.” Harris remembers feeling “emotionally overwhelmed” before the event. But the moment he arrived for rehearsal, the two elders gave him a “warm embrace that just put me at ease and let me know that I was welcome to be there and that if I worked hard and continued in my direction, that I would have the honor of carrying on this legacy.”

Harris also remembers his final meeting with Hutcherson, only a year ago at the SFJAZZ Center: “David Sanchez and I were standing backstage with Bobby, and there were certain harmonic concepts that he was working on that he was sharing. And there was so much joy there,” even though Hutcherson was seriously debilitated by emphysema. “There was so much energy, so much exploration – the idea that learning never stops. There are those rare human beings whose genius unfolds throughout their entire lives, and that was Bobby Hutcherson.”

JOHN HANDY (Jan. 22)
“Traditions in Transition” is a motto for SFJAZZ: the idea that the music is always in flux, absorbing influences and growing toward the next level. A member of the SFJAZZ Collective since 2004, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon embraces that ideal. His own rapturous performances integrate New York modern jazz with Puerto Rican folk traditions and a classical sensibility. The process is one of staying “connected to a tradition, but stepping out into all these other areas that become vehicles for expression,” he says.

ImageHe is just the right musician to curate this night’s tribute to saxophonist John Handy, which will feature the master himself, now 83 years old.

For more than a half-century, Handy has absorbed influences and expanded to new levels; he has demonstrated that “fusion,” in the true sense of the word, can make for profound musical expression. After performing with Charles Mingus in the late 1950s, the saxophonist – who lives in Oakland and played in Jazz in the City’s inaugural concert, in 1983 – entwined his jazz roots with Spanish flamenco and Indian raga, with funk, with classical strings. Explaining his affinity for Gypsy music, he says, “I found it akin to African-American spirituals – the mournful cry that’s turned me on since I was a very young child.”

In the early ‘60s, while attending San Francisco State, Handy befriended a pair of Indian students through whom he met Ravi Shankar, who sat him down and explained Hindustani musical systems. One thing led to the next, and, within a few years, he was performing with Ali Akbar Khan, master of the sarod, who lived in Marin. At a rehearsal with Khan in 1971, he met a 19 year-old kid who played the tablas: Zakir Hussain, who would become a lifelong friend and musical collaborator.

Connections: it seems Handy is always open to them. “Because African-Americans, we pretty much live an improvised culture,” he says. “We have to be ready for things to be a little bit different each day, and so the music is a reflection of that. I pick up the saxophone and, with my first utterance, I’m looking for a new point of departure – the sound of surprise.”