Feeding the Soul:
The 2021-22 Resident artistic directors
September 18, 2021 | by Richard Scheinin
We’re back — the artists and the audience, together.
As the pandemic begins to fade, opportunity emerges — and live music is our tonic. For 18 months, saxophonist Chris Potter has had time to think about the what and why of music — what its mysterious powers are and why he became a musician to begin with. During the pandemic, he thought back 20 years to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. They occurred “ten days before I was supposed to play out in California with my band, and I was like, `I don’t know if this is the time for this. I don’t know if people are even going to come.’ But we went, and people did come. And my experience was that they reacted in an even more intense way than usual. It was like, 'Feed us. We need some help.’”
As we prepare for the the 2021-22 Season, Potter is “super-elated” about his upcoming programs at our San Francisco concert hall — and SFJAZZ is elated to return to its most basic function: feeding people with live music. The new season has an abundance of it: 300 shows across 36 weeks, including a week of programs curated and led by Potter, one of five new Resident Artistic Directors. The season’s scope — from Pat Metheny to Wynton Marsalis, Rosanne Cash and Ravi Coltrane, paying tribute to his parents, John and Alice Coltrane — would make it an ambitious endeavor in any year. Only this year feels fundamentally different from any other in the organization’s 38-year history. When our concert hall went dark in March 2020, SFJAZZ was forced into full improvisation mode: “We shifted gears, fast. The survival instinct kicked in,” says Randall Kline, the founder and Executive Artistic Director of SFJAZZ. In a flash — faster than you can make a vaccine — the organization developed a new line of digital programming. It took off: 15,000 patrons subscribed to the Fridays at Five streaming concert series, which has transitioned to a new live/archival format called Fridays Live and will remain an important part of SFJAZZ programming. That’s good news: Your opportunities for hearing music have now effectively doubled. Tune in online (sfjazz.org/watch), and by all means come out to the concert hall: “The temple is reopening,” Kline says. “Hearing live music again is going to be like the greatest thing ever.”
Much of the excitement will be generated by the five new Resident Artistic Directors, informally known as RADS: saxophonist Potter, among the most influential improvisers of recent decades (and the new music director of the SFJAZZ Collective); drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who has played with everyone, from Wayne Shorter to Chaka Khan; trumpet innovator Ambrose Akinmusire, who merges modern jazz with string quartets and rappers; clarinetist Anat Cohen, whose performances span swing, samba, Middle Eastern music and classical influences; and saxophonist-rapper Soweto Kinch, a progenitor of the exploding London jazz scene. These are five of the most distinguished instrumentalists in jazz. Each is a bandleader, a composer, and a free thinker who likes to both challenge and entertain audiences: “I like to slip some broccoli in with the French fries,” Kinch says with a laugh. And each will curate a week of special shows this season — new commissions, multi-media works, and other out-of-the-box projects — while upholding an SFJAZZ tradition. This organization has always been about the curatorial spirit, coaxing audiences toward new experiences.
We spoke to each of the five RADs: Carrington in Boston; Akinmusire in Oakland; Potter in Brooklyn; Cohen in Rio de Janeiro; and Kinch in Birmingham, England. For over a year, time had ground to a halt. But now, each was getting back on the road, or preparing to do so. How had their creative processes evolved during this time of isolation and change? What new projects had emerged? And why had they become artists in the first place?
Terri Lyne Carrington (photo by John Watson)
Terri Lyne Carrington (Feb. 17-20, 2021)
The drummer sat in with Rahsaan Roland Kirk when she was five. For decades, she lived on tour buses and in airports, always in a rush. The pandemic changed it all. She began to linger on the phone with old friends; a strange concept, lingering. She found time for “thank you” notes — sending one to Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire, telling him that his music had enriched her life. Working at home, she burrowed into large-scale projects: a multi-media work on the theme of racial justice for M.I.T.; a “Visualizing Abolition” project for the University of California, Santa Cruz.
And now, as life normalizes, she promises, “I’m going to pick the things that I do more wisely. I’m just trying to create value with everything I do.”
As a Resident Artistic Director at SFJAZZ, she gets to paint on a blank canvas — “to curate something that feels like an experience, a broad expression.” It’s a chance for the audience “to look into the creative brain of the artist — into the core of your artistry, to know more about your instincts and inspirations, and just what makes you tick.” And it’s an opportunity for Carrington “to bring my own vision to life. If I had my own theater, I’d do this all the time!”
One of her programs is a collaboration with Wayne Shorter, the saxophonist and composer. He hired her when she was in her early 20s, and he remains a friend and mentor, a model for living an exemplary life. So… what can she say about Wayne? “Other than that he’s a genius? To be around and just pick up information from people like Wayne is important. They talk to you about how to be an artist, how to be an artist citizen, how to be a teacher. They teach you how to commit to something, to not stray or become distracted — to be mission oriented.
“By observing somebody being their highest self, it inspires and encourages you to be your highest self. Wayne’s just one of the most amazing human beings I’ve ever been around. He definitely changed my life. Really, he’s just the greatest. Like Muhammad Ali’s the greatest? Wayne’s the greatest.”
Ambrose Akinmusire (March 3-6, 2021)
At age 39, the Oakland-reared trumpet innovator keeps moving ahead — the pandemic gave him time to “say yes” to ambitious projects, like scoring his first TV show, Blindspotting, a series set in Oakland. He also has been looking back, considering his formative influences, like Robert Porter, his first jazz trumpet teacher. “He was always sharp, man,” Akinmusire recalls. “He always had a suit. And he walked with a lean. You know those images of Prez (Lester Young), when he played? That’s kind of the way Mr. Porter was. He’d pick us up — me and my friends — and say, ‘Hey, you’re coming to my gig today.’ And we’d drive up to Sonoma and he would play a Bar Mitzvah or whatever and we would just watch. Very old school. And we’d see how it worked, being a musician. And the other thing, he was a Black Panther years before, so he was teaching us about Oakland history. And when (ex-Panther) Geronimo Pratt was released from prison, we went to De Fremery Park and we met him. So it was about how to play, and it was about how to present yourself, and it was about how to be in your community.”
During his residency at SFJAZZ, Akinmusire will premiere Porter, composed for orchestra and a quartet of young musicians. It’s a tribute to his teacher and other early mentors, including drummer Donald Bailey — the same Donald Bailey who played with organist Jimmy Smith. “Because Mr. Bailey used to have jam sessions every week at the library in North Oakland, and so I’d go and play with him when I was like 15, 16. So many incredible musicians helped me. I mean, I sounded horrible! But they were all about nurturing, about community. And that’s something I’m thinking a lot about this season — about just representing my community. I live in Oakland, so I’m both local and not local. I’m trying to be Ambrose the guy who wins awards and records for Blue Note, but I’m also trying to be just a bro from the Bay.”
When Akinmusire presents Porter at SFJAZZ, he says, the musical spirits of his teachers will be “activated” by the musicians on stage. The community lives, and it grows.
Chris Potter (March 17-20, 2021)
Reflecting on these past 18 months, the saxophonist describes the “sense of relief” that music gives him. “It always got me — the Beatles when I was six or seven,” he says, thinking about his parents’ record collection in Columbia, S. Carolina. “I memorized every note. And then there was this album my parents had of Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, and I did the same thing with that. And then when I started to play” — at age 10 — “I just had that need to communicate, to express something that I couldn’t maybe express in words.”
He remembers recording albums off the radio with his cassette player: “One day they played the whole Queen’s Suite by Duke Ellington, and there was just the richness of the colors, you know, from all the members of the band. And the way it was orchestrated was amazing — the compositional clarity, but also just the jazzness of it, the looseness. It was completely new to me. Each piece had its own feeling, and each member of Duke’s big band had his own sound. And when I heard that, I just fell in love with it.”
Spin forward a few decades. Potter has now composed an evening’s worth of original music for big band — a project that was on his drawing board for several years. “I was always fighting for time to do things,” he explains. “But during the pandemic, I got to slow down and really focus. Because even thinking about getting some large-ensemble music played — that’s a real challenge. And now with this residency, I can actually do it.” While dreaming up projects for his week at SFJAZZ, he says, “I had the feeling that whatever I’d like to propose that I’m excited about, they’d go, `Yeah! Great!’ It’s a bit of a ‘kid in a candy store’ feeling. And it’s such a great place to play. I like the sound. I like the people. I like the vibe from the audience. It’s a groove in every way.”
Anat Cohen (March 24-27)
In March 2020, as the coronavirus spread, the clarinetist left New York and flew to Rio where she could look out her window and see the rocky peak of Corcovado in the distance. “I can hear the birds. It’s very quiet and very lovely,” she said back then. “I just go into the room and close the door and practice the clarinet… But you wonder, how are things ever going to go back to what they were, and what does the future look like?”
Fifteen months later, in June 2021, Cohen visited New York and got her answer. Her friend David Ostwald, the tuba player and leader of the Louis Armstrong Eternity Band, was playing in Riverside Park, and Cohen, who has often played with the group, decided to go. She brought her clarinet. “And I joined the band and I have to tell you, it felt totally normal. Jazz is a conversation, and as musicians, we’d been missing that for a long time. But when I played with David, it wasn’t like, `Oh, I don’t remember how to play with my friends, or how to communicate.’ No, it was a sunny day and we were just playing and delivering positive energy. It felt so obvious — that’s where we belong.”
During the pandemic, she had time to reflect: “What is my message, what is my legacy, what do I want to deliver? How have I been inspired and how do I want to inspire others?” She still worries that the virus might throw another curveball and disrupt what seems to be a return to normalcy. Still, she has been making plans for several of the bands she leads: new repertoire, new albums. Playing in Riverside Park was reassuring: “It felt lovely. And then I was sitting in this beautiful restaurant with friends, and we were drinking caipirinhas and eating Brazilian food, and there were musicians playing, and it just felt so normal.”
Soweto Kinch (May 19-22)
In the most natural way, Kinch has always been a musical bridge builder. His 2003 debut album sounds something like Bird and Diz meeting Pharcyde. A Life in the Day of B 19: Tales of the Tower Block, from 2006, inter-weaves the stories of three inner-city men with the British saxophonist’s raw fusion of hip-hop and jazz. (B 19 is the zip code of an impoverished neighborhood in Birmingham, Kinch’s hometown.)
Over the years, his projects have grown more expansive, expressive, ambitious. On the cusp of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kinch — who also raps — premiered The Black Peril, drawing a parallel between the outbreak of the Spanish flu in 1918 and another “virus” that broke out the year after — a wave of anti-Black race riots in Scotland, England, Italy, the United States., and Jamaica. Kinch seemed prescient: Within months of the premiere, the coronavirus emerged, and — as if on cue — there was a wave of police attacks on Black men and women, setting off international protests. When society faces a crisis — say, a pandemic — it lashes out, finds a scapegoat, Kinch says, “and usually it’s Black people, Asian people, Jewish people, Muslim people.”
His new project is White JuJu, a danceable meditation on a sobering subject: systemic racism, the spell it casts, and the way it prevents us “from recognizing our common bonds.” Once again, Kinch — who crafted the piece while quarantined in Birmingham — is building symbolic bridges: between European concert music and jazz, electronica, rap, ragtime, and reggae. “We’ve been living in a Hollywood action movie, post-apocalyptic,” he says. Enough already. Now it’s time to find “a common thread.”
A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.
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