SFJAZZ.org | Fridays At Five: Artists Reflect on New Streaming Series

On The Corner Masthead

Fridays at Five
Artists Reflect on New Streaming Series

June 23, 2020 | by Richard Scheinin

Lizz Wright

In the second part of his in-depth look at our streaming concert series Fridays at Five, SFJAZZ staff writer Richard Scheinin speaks to Joe Lovano, Lizz Wright, and Marcus Shelby, whose performances have been featured on the series. They discuss what it was like to watch themselves perform, virtually, and how they’re adjusting to the new reality of quarantine living and the pandemic.

Lockdown means shutdown at the SFJAZZ Center, where hundreds of shows have been canceled because of the coronavirus.

In response, SFJAZZ has launched Fridays at Five, a weekly series of pre-recorded online concerts. Drawn from the organization’s deep archive of filmed performances, it already has streamed hour-long shows by many leading figures in jazz and improvised music. We spoke to three of them — saxophonist Joe Lovano, vocalist Lizz Wright and bassist Marcus Shelby — about staying safe, sane and creative in unstable times. When we phoned Lovano, quarantined at his house north of New York City, he’d been rediscovering his vinyl collection: “Jackie McLean, Bluesnik. Andrew Hill, Black Fire,” he said, ticking off classic album titles. And this one: Keith Jarrett’s The Survivors’ Suite, recorded in 1976. “That record, Lovano said, “is about what’s going on right now: How do you get through these defining moments in our life?”

In the weeks ahead, Fridays at Five will present concerts featuring Herbie Hancock and Terence Blanchard (June 26) Allen Toussaint and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (July 3), the Afro-Cuban All-Stars (July 17), Cécile McLorin Salvant (July 24), Branford Marsalis (July 31), and Joshua Redman (August 28), to name a few. It’s not your typical video concert series. Inventively filmed, and with state-of-the-art audio, it often has the effect of taking you inside the music. For $5 per month, or $60 annually, you can watch the shows by signing up here: www.sfjazz.org/watch. Every Friday, the music starts at 5 p.m. PST.

Off the road for the first time in years, the saxophonist has been quarantined at home with his wife Judi Silvano, the vocalist and painter. Our conversation — which took place before the protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis — was about watershed moments. Lovano is at heart an optimist: Even times of upheaval and mourning, he reflected, can lead to new ideas and new modes of expression that wind up enriching the world.

He mentioned several of the musicians who have succumbed to the coronavirus: trumpeter Wallace Roney, pianist Ellis Marsalis, bassist Henry Grimes. “We’ve lost a lot of people, but I believe in the celebration of life everlasting,” he said. “Look, Charlie Parker would’ve been 100 this year. He’s not with us, but he’s with us. You listen to any record by Charlie Parker, and it’s love that you feel — after all these years. And you could say the same about all the other people who’ve left us. McCoy Tyner left us recently — oh, man,” he says, thinking about the great pianist, who died in early March. “I’ve developed my music as a result of being embraced by McCoy, by Hank Jones, by Elvin Jones, all these masters. So I’m vibrating on their spirits, and love is what’s getting me through this period we’re in right now, this defining moment.”

The phrase — “defining moment” — set off another round of reflections for Lovano, whose conversation is something like a musical improvisation. It’s an exercise in thematic development, moving from point to point, with freewheeling sections as interludes — before making the next connection and flying off in a new direction.

Joe Lovano

He mentioned growing up in Cleveland: “I was a teenager during the civil rights period, and my dad” — Tony “Big T” Lovano — “was one of the leading tenor players around town. And Cleveland had riots, just like New York and Detroit and Pittsburgh and Newark. And all the clubs where my dad played — all of a sudden, they were gone, and I remember my dad going through some changes. Those urban neighborhoods were burned down, and that was a defining moment that took some time to unravel. But the music that came out of that period — the late ‘60s into the ‘70s — was some powerful spiritual expressions, man. Music got spiritual. Coltrane’s music was an example of that — and Miles, In a Silent Way.

“And this has that to me,” he said, referring to the pandemic. “I’m feeling that this is a heavy defining moment, but for the whole planet. Everyone’s in isolation. There’s a lot of soul-searching going on. And commercialism is so powerful — everybody’s supposed to get right back to work and this and that. But I’m hoping it becomes more about love and about embracing each other as one. And I’m making a piece of music. I just titled it: It’s called `All Is One,’ and it’s not just a tune. It’s a concept of `all is one’ — like sounds, harmonies, melodies, rhythms. Everything is equal-balanced and you can play in different ways. Not just reading from left to right, but from within, from right to left, taking every interval and turning it into something. So, yeah, I’m trying to work on some ideas, so when we emerge from this, it’s not just to play the same tunes in the same ways. I want to play in some different ways.”

All these documents that SFJAZZ has in its archives that are so beautifully recorded and filmed — that’s an expression of creativity that captures you and gives you hope.

Quarantined, he’s “just trying to have real creative moments” — and he witnessed more than a few of those when he tuned in last month for his performance on Fridays at Five. Filmed at the SFJAZZ Center’s Miner Auditorium on March 15, 2019, the streaming concert featured his Trio Tapestry (with pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Carmen Castaldi) and his Trio Fascination (with guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Tyshawn Sorey). Each trio played a short set, and then they came together — spontaneously, without rehearsal — as a quintet.

It was an exercise in deep listening, and “you could see us listening to each other,” Lovano said, commenting on the videography. The cameras zoomed in and out, surrounding the musicians, getting between them, or shooting up into their faces, isolating moments of what Lovano likes to call “music within the music.” The music got spiritual: “Some bands play the same set every night. And other bands create music. And whenever I’m playing, I feel like it’s a congregation of folks — us on stage and whoever’s in the room. It could be the Village Vanguard, or it could be Miner Auditorium. And I’m not sure when we’re going to be able to gather like that in the future,” he said. “The defining moment is going to take a minute to regain some semblance of normal. But right now, all these documents that SFJAZZ has in its archives that are so beautifully recorded and filmed — that’s an expression of creativity that captures you and gives you hope.” He’s tuned in a number of times, watching percussionist Zakir Hussain, saxophonist Kamasi Washington, pianist Chucho Valdés. “It’s a liberating thing. It gives you ideas, if you’re in that mindset. Because when I listen to music, it sparks something in me to create new ways of putting music together myself.”

He and Judi Silvano recently streamed a performance from their studio: “She had her easel set up and she was painting and improvising, and we did this duet, a really creative set. It’s something we’d never done before that we want to do in a concert setting some time in the future.” New things keep happening for Lovano. On July 5, he will take his Trio Fascination — a different version of the band, with bassist Ben Street and drummer Andrew Cyrille — to New York’s Village Vanguard to stream a live performance. Because of the ongoing health crisis, there won’t be a live audience in the club — only the musicians, projecting their music out into this new virtual world. You can find details at Lovano’s web site (www.joelovano.com), where he recently posted a message regarding the national protests for racial equality: “I want to reach out to everyone in our multi-cultural Jazz Community, especially my African-American Brothers, Sisters, and Forefathers. I am with you in solidarity and pray that truth and justice will prevail. We will move through this defining moment with Love and Compassion and the Music we create together in the future will be even more meaningful and spiritual in nature — `A Symphony of Brotherhood,’ as Martin Luther King said in his `I Have a Dream’ speech. That dream is still with us and we must overcome!”

She began singing publically as a child. She became a professional while in her teens, and she has spent most of the past 20 years on the road. But it wasn’t until April 3, 2020 — when her SFJAZZ show from last September was streamed on Fridays at Five — that Lizz Wright ever watched one of her performances from start to finish.

“It was truly nerve-wracking,” she said. “I was pacing around and my family made me kind of stop and take it in. They pushed me not to hide in my sensitivity. I’ve just never gotten on the other side of this feeling when I see myself or hear myself; I feel very exposed. I don’t know what it is — like an anxiety.”

The confession is likely to surprise her audience, because Wright is an artist of deep composure. When she sings, she is nothing but grounded. Her voice is a thing of beauty, living in a place where the sacred meets the sensual. She aims to bring “a heaven-facing kind of blues” to the stage, she once said, a phrase that will make sense to her listeners. Yet when the tables were turned — when she became her own audience — the experience was “just overwhelming. And I said to myself, `I’ve got to get over this.’ And after a couple of songs it kind of melted away and I really took in what I do, deeply for the first time… I was surprised. The whole thing was very interesting. This thing” — she means her voice — “has worked. It’s been working since I was five years old, singing in my dad’s church, but I never sat in front of it like that. I’m 40, and I’m sitting here, looking at myself and saying, `Oh, this is what’s happening.’”

Wright grew up in southern Georgia and her music has a lived-in feeling that she once attributed to “Georgia dirt. There’s a sound, and there’s a treatment of rhythm that’s cultural.” She began her SFJAZZ performance with “Salt,” her own composition, a soulful anthem — and the title track of her 2003 debut album. She also sang “Freedom,” by her friend Toshi Reagan, and “Climbing Higher Mountains,” which Aretha Franklin, one of her heroes, sang on the “Amazing Grace” album. Kenny Banks, Wright’s pianist for two decades, is a kind of genius; throughout the streaming performance, you could hear everything in his playing, from Bach chorales to blues and the Black church. He lay down some organ behind Wright for “Singing in My Soul” by Thomas A. Dorsey, and the show ended with a ballad, “Seems I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You,” composed by Carolyn Franklin (Aretha’s sister) and popularized by Nina Simone. All in all, this was a prime performance by Wright: a rich amalgam of jazz, folk, gospel and soul. Whatever she sings, there is an essence, a flavor that’s her own: “Just like the salt in the stew, it’s all a part of you,” is the way she sings it in her anthem.

I really took in what I do, deeply for the first time… I was surprised

Speaking last month from her home in Chicago — before the start of national protests against the killing of George Floyd — she felt herself responding to “the demands of a changed world.” The pandemic had brought on a paradigm shift: “It’s an incredible moment,” she said. “I started out like everyone — pretty stunned the first two or three weeks. It was just kind of like, `What in the world?’ But I’m one of those people that gets a little bit secretly giddy when the world runs off its rails a bit… There’s a kind of heightened sensitivity. My curiosity is piqued, and I’ve realized there are things that I wanted to uncover and put back on the burner.”

Off the road, with time to spare, she has resumed guitar and piano lessons. She is finishing songs and overhauling a new album, which would be her first since Grace in 2017. “I’m finding it’s a good moment to reimagine things… I’m nervous, too; I have two teams to take care of somehow. But there’s something about the suspense of it that’s giving me a lot of space to get to things. Whatever happens, I’m going to come out of this with more to give.”

Feeling “fully engaged and just very curious,” she is stepping up to the new technology that’s come to the forefront: “The live streaming, the at-home production, this will definitely remain. What position it takes in the business remains to be seen. But right now, it’s in front and many of us have bought gear that we didn’t know how to use until this time. I’m in the middle of homemade crash courses in Pro Tools and GarageBand. I’ve totally morphed out of the girlie singer mode. Suddenly I’m ready for this whole other experience from a production place and a musical place, and I’m excited. I feel like I got written into an interesting moment. There is always a song to sing and a new way to sing it.”

The San Francisco—based bassist teaches in schools and prisons, collaborates with theater companies, filmmakers and poets and has composed a triptych of big band suites drawn from African-American history. His Port Chicago was inspired by the 1944 explosion at an East Bay naval yard, where more than 320 men were killed, most of them black American sailors. His Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman suite evoked the Underground Railroad’s abolitionist hero. His Soul of the Movement drew on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., while exploring work songs, spirituals, blues, jazz and Curtis Mayfield’s “We’re a Winner.”

Earlier this month, Fridays at Five streamed Shelby’s May 24, 2019 concert titled Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, filmed during his weeklong residency as one of SFJAZZ’s resident artistic directors. The show drew its title from a book by Angela Davis, the political activist and author, who joined Shelby’s quartet and three singers on stage for a night of words and song. They focused on the legacies of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, the book’s principal subjects. Shelby calls Davis’s work “the most articulate treatise on the blues — this book just blew my mind many years ago. And I had no idea I would ever meet Angela Davis, but when SFJAZZ asked me what I’d like to do (during the residency), I said I’d like to turn her book into a historical piece with singers and with my band and with Angela Davis herself.”

If you saw the broadcast, you felt the power of the performance. More than a “historical piece,” it was living blues: Shelby’s bedrock pulse and a band that testified through tunes with which Rainey, Smith and Holiday had “generated possibilities of resistance” and “the vision of a new order,” as Davis expressed it to the audience. There was a rotating cast of singers — Tiffany Austin, Paula West and Kim Nalley — along with (aside from Shelby) an all-female band: saxophonist Tia Fuller, pianist Tammy Hall and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. The relevance of the concert — which streamed as hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets over George Floyd’s killing — wasn’t lost on viewers. They contributed about $39,000 to a virtual “tip jar” — to be split between the artists and the Black Lives Matter movement. And they participated in a live chat running down the right-hand side of the screen. One viewer commented: “George Floyd called for his mother, and here are the women sharing their art of healing through their music!”

Speaking last month — before the protests had begun — Shelby described the rapport between Davis and the band as “totally natural, because Angela is a very musical person. She grew up in the Black church. She knows this music better than most musicians.”

Since the pandemic began, he has been trying to figure out “what the new normal is. Part of it’s been great. I think many of us were just sort of burnt out, running from one gig to another — the eternal hustle. Now I’m not under-estimating the virus and the damage and the death it has caused,” he emphasized. “I won’t ever underestimate that, because I’ve lost some friends… and I knew some of the musicians who’ve passed. I knew Wallace Roney a little bit, and Ellis Marsalis. But having said that, the stop in time has allowed me to kind of re-set and also kind of re-charge and re-organize. Before this, I found myself finishing a project and having to immediately start a new one. So it’s nice to not have to rush, because I did feel I was on a treadmill. I had a ton of big band gigs all through the summer. I had festivals. I had jazz camps. And I was like, `Where am I going to get the energy to do all this?’”

With time opening up, he continued, “I’m practicing a lot — that’s another good thing. And I’m not in a rush to understand this moment and make a musical statement. I’m not rushing to do that. I’m listening to what’s around me. I’m watching. I’m reading. I’ve spent the last three weeks just reading and listening to Charles Mingus, because I just naturally went there. One of his songs led me to transcribe an entire record’s worth of Mingus’s music that I want to do now. I’ve been learning these Mingus songs that nobody plays. I’ve been learning his art songs. And I’ve just become really peaceful. I started cooking,” he said, sounding amazed. “My entire life, I’ve never cooked! I just bought stuff, ready-to-eat. But man, I’ve turned into a chef. I cook every night; elaborate meals, vegetable soups. I cook and I listen to Mingus or I watch an old World Series.”

A baseball fanatic, one of Shelby’s most recent projects is titled Black Ball: The Negro Leagues and the Blues. (He performed it during last year’s residency at SFJAZZ.). It draws connections between the barnstorming teams of the old Negro Leagues and the barnstorming territory bands of the Swing Era. An inveterate researcher and composer, Shelby is always generating a new project — he can’t help it, no matter how much he enjoys giving himself a rest. Some sort of Mingus project is now on the horizon, it seems. “And I’ve also been thinking about how music can articulate the homeless crisis here in the Bay Area. Since I wrapped up my baseball project, that’s all I was thinking about until this crisis hit. And I’m not going to stop thinking about it now, because this COVID crisis is affecting the homeless population more than anyone,” Shelby said, pausing to consider other possible projects. “I also want to do something on prisons with Angela, maybe something based on her books and speeches. If it happens, it may take a while. I guess I’m a little bit like a method actor. I need to become it. I kind of need to live it, and eventually it happens.”

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.