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Regional Interests

SFJAZZ’s New Season Spotlights a Vanguard of Players Shaping Pop Culture

Opera has been around for centuries and no one is digging its grave. The novel is still going strong after a millennium and only a fool would declare its demise. So why does jazz, a relative upstart born in the early years of the 20th century, attract so many doomsayers? Every five years or so, middlebrow publications run a wave of “think pieces” measuring the music for a coffin, arguing that jazz is dead, dying or gasping for breath.

Reading these pieces, it’s usually obvious that the writers slinging the cliché aren’t paying much attention to the scene. In the updated third edition of Ted Gioia’s invaluable book The History of Jazz, he counters the tired narrative by noting “a development as delightful as it has been unexpected. Jazz has somehow rediscovered its roots as populist music, embarking on a new and unscripted dialogue with mainstream culture.”

I’d go farther. Rather than an unexpected development, 20 years after the release of D’Angelo’s pervasively influential neo-soul manifesto Voodoo, an album deeply marked by the work of revered jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove and acid jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, jazz’s presence in popular culture is rapidly accelerating in multiple directions. Gioia namechecks Kamasi Washington, Esperanza Spalding, Shabaka Hutchings and Robert Glasper as artists in their prime who “have shown that they can draw on the full range of current-day song styles without losing their jazz roots.”

The point is not only well taken, it understates the degree to which musicians steeped in jazz are helping design the contemporary soundscape, from movies and video games to hip-hop, R&B and pop. The traffic flows both ways, of course, and these same artists are creating music deeply influenced by and engaged with popular culture. Look no further than the new season at San Francisco’s SFJAZZ Center, where three artists performing in the coming days embody a rising generation who see jazz as a provocative question rather than a set of answers.

Pianist and composer Kris Bowers, 32, opens the season Thursday with a multimedia solo performance that draws on his skills as an improviser and his rapidly growing body of film scores. A Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition winner who graduated from Juilliard, the Los Angeles native is as comfortable collaborating with Jay-Z and Kanye West as he is creating musical settings for choreographer Kyle Abraham. But he’s putting most of his energy these days into his career as a film composer, with credits that encompass documentaries (Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, Kobe Bryant’s Muse and Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You), Hollywood features (The United States vs. Billie Holiday and Green Book), and Netflix series (Dear White People, When They See Us and Bridgerton).

Bowers is so busy that he’s only performing a handful of concerts a year, and Thursday’s SFJAZZ show is a trial run for an immersive concept he’s developing. The first half includes original text he commissioned from a poet and abstract video elements created by graphic artist David Wexler (a.k.a. Strangeloop), who’ll be on hand to interact with Bowers in real time as he performs.

“It’s a duet,” Bowers says.

The concert’s second half features excerpts from his favorite scores, reimagined as solo piano pieces with visuals he created with his wife. While the sources are disparate, the program seeks to build an emotional narrative that’s larger than any particular scene or moment.

“We talked about how we could represent all these projects from such different styles,” he explains. “What’s the through line? I landed on this idea that my process is the same. I’ll watch a show or a scene or read a script until I find the point that speaks to something larger than the character on the page.”

While Bowers carves out a niche as an independent composer for hire, 26-year-old pianist/keyboardist James Francies reflects the enduring truth that jazz is often at its most vital when it’s tied to a specific community. Performing with guitar star Pat Metheny’s recently formed trio Side-Eye Sept. 24 at the Monterey Jazz Festival and Sept. 25-26 at the SFJAZZ Center, Francies is a rising force in jazz who’s also worked widely with Common, Nas, Mark Ronson and Childish Gambino over the past five years. He’s probably best known outside of jazz circles for his multiple pursuits with Questlove, a connection forged by pianist/producer and fellow Houstonian Robert Glasper.

Francies came up in the creative hothouse of Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where he and similarly gifted peers “had a chance to really cultivate a sound before going to college,” he says. “The people I play with now, we’ve known each other since we were in Houston at the high school, a breeding ground for great innovators and minds.”

That pride is evident on his new album Purest Form, Francies’ second release on Blue Note. The album’s centerpiece is “713,” a cool, shimmering cruise through Houston’s area code with Francies’ hometown trio mates, Burniss Travis on bass and Jeremy Dutton on drums. Set to a slinky, insinuating groove with lapidary textures accented by the crackle of vinyl, the tune serves as a soundtrack for a video directed by graphic designer Alex Gilbeaux that evokes “the feeling that you’re riding along in a car with the view passing by,” Francies says. “Music for me is very visual, very cinematic. Each song is a piece that’s constantly moving, that doesn’t finish in the same place it started.”

No artist better exemplifies the creative frisson generated by jazz and hip-hop than Kassa Overall, a 39-year-old drummer, sound designer and rapper who plays two shows in the SFJAZZ Center’s Joe Henderson Lab Sept. 26. Featuring pianist Ian Finkelstein, keyboardist and DJ Paul Wilson and recently recruited percussionist Kofi Hunter, the quartet has painstakingly honed a sound that Overall developed in a series of mixtapes built on programmed beats, melodic fragments and his trenchant, often hilarious raps. His quartet manages to render the densely packed tracks in real time.

“It’s been years of trial and error, figuring out how to make it work in a live setting,” says Overall, a Seattle native living Brooklyn. “By learning how to do it in a little club, it made us self-sufficient. We do use samples and a lot of electronic elements. Most big pop, R&B and rap artists do that. What they don’t do is find out a way to also improvise and create within that framework. … We’re stripping that away completely at times to make room for other improvisational worlds, with songs between the songs.”

Overall’s skills as a sound designer have attracted some of jazz’s most prodigious talents. He was part of pianist Jon Batiste’s crew at BottleRock a few weeks ago. And Overall is featured prominently on drummer and NEA Jazz Master Terri Lyne Carrington’s politically charged double album, Waiting Game, with her band Social Science. He performs with them Thursday at Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center and Saturday afternoon at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Mentored by a triumvirate of trap set superheroes—Billy Hart, Elvin Jones and Billy Higgins—Overall has performed with mid-career masters like Vijay Iyer, Ravi Coltrane and Christian McBride, and revered veterans such as Gary Bartz and Henry Threadgill. He’s deeply versed in jazz history. But more than a discreet tradition defined by a rhythmic feel and a set of conventions, Overall sees jazz as a mandate for exploration.

“We have to be careful not to confuse the aesthetics of performance with its principles and intentions,” Overall says. “You’ll have people playing straight-ahead jazz, but the people that were making that music at the time were searching for a new sound. The idea of bebop was to push yourself. I love playing bebop. I love Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones. But I don’t think the intention is to stay stuck. I think the one number one goal is to work your ass off and try to find something.”

Agree with him or not, a musical idiom that easily encompasses Overall, Francies and Bowers is, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, busy being born, not dying.

SFJAZZ Center’s new season kicks off Sept. 23 and goes until May 29, 2022. 

Copyright 2021 KQED