Jazz Ascendant?

Frisell and Scofield Onstage Together at the Lobero

WHEN JAZZ COMES TO TOWN, AND THE WORLD: Jazz people in America are accustomed to lurking in the dark and on the fringes, muttering to themselves and still disbelieving—after all these decades—that America fails to recognize the treasure in its cultural midst. Suddenly, last week, S.B. jazz heads got a surprising double-barreled burst of affirmation. There is hope yet.

LOBERO TRIUMPHANT: At the Lobero Theatre, a blissfully full house showed up to hear two of the greatest living jazz guitarists, John Scofield and Bill Frisell, in what was undoubtedly the most memorable jazz double-header in this venue’s history. Both musicians have always courted assorted musical muses beyond jazz, and soul-jazz and Americana were in the mix this night, including a tingly cool moment when both trios played onstage, giving Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” a new face. But hearing Scofield work his way around Charlie Parker’s “Wee” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody ’n’ You” and Frisell give his scamper-minded all to Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee” pushed some kind of epiphanic button in the hearts and minds of jazz lovers in the house.

GRAMMY SHOCKER: More globally, on the next night, the Grammy awards delivered a staggering gift to the jazz cause by naming wunderkind bassist/singer/musical force Esperanza Spalding the year’s Best New Artist. Turning a local twist on the award, Spalding makes her Santa Barbara debut Sunday at Campbell Hall. Yes, startlingly, she trumped boy wonder Justin Bieber and became the first jazz artist in Grammy history to win the award … and she fully deserves it. Millions are scratching their heads, but perhaps some of them will now start to explore the wonders of America’s greatest indigenous music.

Plainly put, Spalding is a great young hope for jazz, and a multiple threat, in the sweetest way. She’s a scary-fine bassist, not only on her own music but also in projects such as Joe Lovano’s wonderful two-drummer band Us Five. She’s also a natural singer whose tastes range from Stevie Wonder to Prince, a well-rounded and curious musician, and a beautiful, strong woman. Her third and latest album is the fine and typically eclectic Chamber Music Society (Heads Up), whose title is only half tongue-in-cheek, following on the promise of 2008’s Esperanza and Junjo (Ayva) in 2006, when she was all of 21 years old. Sunday’s Campbell Hall show, already a buzz-worthy event this season, hits the calendar with extra, officially laurelled force. It’s a not-to-miss.

ON THE RADIO: For those open-eared young (or young-spirited) music fans about to explore this exotic jazz stuff, we salute you. For starters, neophytes could check out regional radio options. KCBX (89.5 FM) has daily morning jazz shows and other fine jazz programs scattered throughout the week, and the jazz roster of Santa Barbara’s own KCSB (91.9 FM) is a healthily diverse myriad, from the mainstreaming “Jazz Straight Ahead” to the more tradition-stretching stuff of “Joyful Cosmos” and “Roots to the Source.” Listen up. It’s your duty as an American.

ON THE INDO-JAZZ FRONT: Indian music and jazz have found ways to get along over many years, through efforts of such musicians as John McLaughlin, in his Shakti band and other cross-cultural liaisons, genre-meshings from Zakir Hussain, L. Subramaniam, Shankar, and others. More recently, the rightly critically acclaimed musicians Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa have led the charge with projects freshly and inventively plumbing the juxtaposition of Indian music and the bebop business.

Saturday at UCSB’s MultiCultural Center (MCC), indo-jazz lingo settles into the accommodating small-but-mighty MCC Theater, with the Bay Area-based group VidyA. At the heated helm is tenor saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, in a spare but muscular setting with bassist David Ewell and drummer Sameer Gupta. The lack of a chordal instrument makes linguistic sense, given classical Indian music’s melodic and rhythmic emphasis, sans harmony, per se. Mixing jazz chops and the South Indian Carnatic musical dialect, Radhakrishan tends to energize the musical context rather than lean into the more meditative aspects of Indian music. It’s a fusion sound worth knowing.


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