Thursday, September 17, 1998
The West Coast has begun to develop a reputation for an irreverent, devil-may-care style of jazz that has found favor with young audiences in the Bay Area--but which is still struggling to find favor with jazz traditionalists.
In contrast to the West Coast Cool developed by Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck at the dawn of the ''50s, the jazz music of players like guitarists Charlie Hunter and Will Bernard are filled with funky twists and turns in directions a bit left of center. Rhythms are derived from East Bay funk and San Francisco psychedelic rock; melodies can come from every corner of the world.
Two key people on the "Left Coast" have done a lot to expose Hunter, Bernard and their counterparts in the Bay Area scene to a wider audience.
Lee Townsend is the owner/producer of Songline/Tonefield Productions, a Berkeley-based independent music production company and artist management firm with an emphasis on cross-genre music. He''s worked with the two guitarists to produce recordings, first with the group that both guitarists were in, T.J. Kirk, and then with their separate groups after TJK went by the wayside.
Tim Jackson, GM for the Monterey Jazz Festival, a musician, and director of the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, noticed the talents of Hunter early on, bringing him to Kuumbwa in ''92 when no one knew about the phenomenal 8-string guitarist and then to the main stage at MJF in ''95, where the diverse audience responded well to his trio. Hunter has since become a fairly regular performer at MJF, and also played at the Big Sur Jazz Festival''s inaugural event in ''96. This year, Jackson presents the Will Bernard 4-Tet along with other Bay Area crossover jazz artists Joel Harrison Octet, Mingus Amungus, Omar Sosa and Ledisi.
Through Townsend''s and Jackson''s efforts in support of artists who create boundary-challenging jazz, the credibility of the West Coast sound has gained a foothold in the music marketplace.
"What I like about the Bay Area scene," says Jackson, "is it''s a little more irreverent in the sense it''s not the Bible according to Lincoln Center, or Wynton Marsalis, or someone like that. What Lincoln Center does is great and what Wynton does is great; there''s room for everything. But what''s fun about the Bay Area scene is that it''s a little more open-ended."
Townsend has probably done more to further the appeal of the Bay Area''s crossover jazz scene than anyone else. His recent appointment as vice president of A&R for Verve Records, a major label with a strong interest in jazz, has opened up the possibility for even more recognition of Bay Area creative musical artists.
The 40-year-old Los Angeles native moved back to the Bay Area from New York where he had worked for four years with German record label ECM''s U.S. division. He arrived in the Bay Area in ''88 and began looking for musicians to work with. He met guitarist Will Bernard when he was playing with Peter Apfelbaum''s Hieroglyphics Ensemble, a crossover jazz group that Hans Wendl was working with at the time. Wendl, who had previously worked with Townsend at ECM, had moved to the Bay Area earlier and the two of them jointly manage guitarist Bill Frisell today. Townsend formed Songline as an artist managment firm and later formed Tonefield as the production side of his current business.
Bernard, an alumnus of Berkeley High School''s renowned jazz band and a graduate of U.C. Berkeley in composition, worked with Townsend in ''92 on a project with Rinde Eckert, a San Francisco singer/performance artist on Songline''s roster. It was around this time that the music scene in S.F. began to heat up.
"Around ''93, all of the clubs jumped on the hip-hop/acid-jazz trip," Bernard says of the Bay Area scene. "Suddenly everyone was playing jazz in all the clubs. I have to say, I was loving that. At one time I was playing in 15 bands. We started Pothole (another Bernard venture besides his 4-Tet) and T.J. Kirk then. That was the year I met Charlie Hunter and all the other musicians involved in that circle."
Hunter, Bernard, John Schott and Scott Amendola were in T.J. Kirk, an unusual grouping of three guitarists and a drummer who played quirky renditions of compositions by Thelonious Monk, James Brown and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Bernard approached Townsend with a tape and asked if he could shop it around in the music business. And, oh, maybe he would like to produce them?
"It was right up my alley," says Townsend. "First of all I like the music. I like the blending of styles, the kind of reconstruction of these three composers'' work, all of whom I''ve spent a lot of time with over the years. Secondly, I like the guys, and that''s always really important. Most importantly, I thought it was just a fresh approach. We had a lot of fun doing those records. It was one of those things where the motives are serious and the intent is serious, in terms of making something strong and original out of these reworkings of that music. But it had this other dimension of having wit and humor, and having a lot of fun in it."
At this point all the pieces began to fall into place for a lasting relationship between Townsend, Hunter and Bernard. Warner Brothers liked T.J. Kirk, signed the band and Townsend produced the group''s two CDs; the second one, If Four Was One, received a Grammy nomination in ''96. Hunter asked Townsend to produce his trio and they have since recorded four CDs for the Blue Note label, although Hunter has different bands on each recording: Bing, Bing, Bing Ready, Set...Shango!, Natty Dread and The Return of the Candyman. And Bernard has done his first CD with his 4-Tet called Medicine Hat on the Antilles Verve label, and another with the rougher-edged Pothole titled Dirty Picnic, on German label Intuition as part of the Songline/Tonefield series.
"He understands our music for the most part," says Bernard. "He understands that we''re trying to do something that is not mainstream commercial music. He''s been supporting it for years and years, plus being a good producer. It''s funny, until he moved here, there wasn''t really anyone like that before. Between him and Wendl, they kind of got things moving here, he helped bring some industry attention to the scene."
Townsend''s reputation among the highly creative musicians he''s worked with--who includes John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Joey Baron, Marc Johnson, Dave Holland, Steve Coleman, Jack DeJohnette, and many others--is as a laid back, easy-to-work-with guy with a positive attitude.
"I try to support and help realize the artist''s vision," Townsend says, "but that''s not the same as being a yes man. In fact, I try to balance that with challenging them to do something fresh and different, and you know if you develop a sense of trust between yourself and the artist, it creates a comfortable environment from which they can experiment."
Now, from Hunter''s point of view, which at times comes from someplace off the wall, you might get a different impression of how Townsend gets the best out of an artist.
"Well, usually I just have to take my shirt off and he beats me, he canes me," he says with deadpan seriousness. "He gives me a good sturdy caning and then sometimes he''ll burn my feet. He hangs me upside down sometimes and beats my feet with a truncheon, and usually that motivates me to really get rolling."
A leading representative of the anything-goes aesthetic that exists on the crossover jazz scene of the Bay Area, Hunter nonetheless has found that his relentless touring and restless creative nature has prompted him to move to New York City where a larger pool of jazz musicians reside, and a fresh perspective on life and his music can be found.
"The Bay Area was cool," he says from his home in Brooklyn. "That time that we were doing it, when I had the trio with Dave Ellis and Jay Lane and we had T.J. Kirk, we were at our level of musicianship. I think we were doing really good music and we were really honest, ya know. Then I felt like for me it kind of ended, and I had to move on to the next phase."
Whether the crossover jazz scene has withered in San Francisco or not, perhaps due to the current fashion rage of swing dance, there is plenty going on behind the scenes and on a wider scope than in the past. At the beginning of 1998, Townsend was appointed to his position at Verve Records.
"Lee Townsend brings a new and highly individual perspective to Verve," says President Chuck Mitchell. "His scope is worldwide, but his location in the thriving Bay Area music scene puts Verve at the center of one of the most historically fertile musical capitals."
"Obviously Lee is constantly going to be a force in the music industry," says Bernard. "He''s a hard worker, he works non-stop on projects and he always has an eye to the music scene in the Bay Area. He helps people out that he thinks has talent. He''s looking out for us.Hopefully, there will be more interest in what''s going on in the Bay Area."
"I''m sure it''s going to benefit people," says Hunter about Townsend''s work with Verve Records. "That''s the whole thing. There are so many musicians that are amazing, talented artists and instrumentalists, and they need a chance. Their music is totally valid, but they need a chance to be economically validated. Unfortunately, there are two major record distributors who hold all of the power in economic validation and PolyGram is one of them (Verve is a division under Polygram Classics & Jazz). I think that he gives people an avenue, so hopefully it''s going to help some people out."
With Hunter gaining recognition in New York and on the road purveying his style of the hybrid funky groove music that makes you want to move, Bernard''s bands touring in support of their record releases and beginning work on a second CD for the 4-Tet, Townsend in place as a major label talent scout, producer and connection for creative artists looking to find a record deal, and people like Tim Jackson willing to present the music to large audiences, perhaps San Francisco and the East Bay could come into prominence as the cross-genre creative jazz center, something that fits very well into the overall perception of what West Coast living is about: freedom, irreverence and new ideas. cw
Interested in hearing some of the bands out of the Bay Area? Check out Will Bernard 4-Tet, Joel Harrison Octet, Mingus Amungus, Omar Sosa and Ledisi at the Monterey Jazz Festival. See schedule.
1998 Monterey Jazz Fest
Look. The main stage is sold, so we''re not goint to torment you with listing the schedule. But there''s still plenty of music you can see with a grounds pass to the Monterey Jazz Festival. Enjoy.
Friday Night 6:00 pm
Joel Harrison Octet
Saturday Afternoon 12:30 pm
Gary Smith Band
Marcia Hall/Irma Thomas/Tracy Nelson: Sing It!
Saturday Night 7:00 pm
RebecaMauleon & Round Trip
Will Bernard 4tet
Sunday Afternoon 12:00 pm
OaklandInterfaith Gospel Choir
Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers
Roger Eddy Group
Berklee-Monterey Quartet ''98 from Berklee College of Music
Sunday Night 6:00 pm
Bobby Hutcherson Quartet
Friday Night 8:30 pm
Joyce Cooling Band
Paquito D'' Rivera & U.N. Orchestra
Saturday Afternoon 1:30 pm
ContemporaryMusic Studies Ensemble (Australia)
Global Jazz Orchestra (Japan)
Contemporary Jazz Orchestra
Saturday Night 8:30 pm
Anthony Wilson Nonet
Dee Dee Bridgewater
Sunday Afternoon 2:00 pm
JazzJournalists Association Panel
Sunday Night 7:30 pm
Tributeto Stephane Grapelli with Darol Anger & Johnny Frigo
Virginia Mayhew Quintet featuring Ingrid Jensen
Ray Drummond''s All Star Excursion Band
Friday Night 8:00 pm
GTMwith Spencer Allen
Melvin Rhyne Trio with Peter Bernstein & Mickey Roker
Gloria Coleman & Trudy Pitts with Little Jimmy Oliver
Saturday Afternoon 2:00 pm
Conversation/Bobby Hutcherson moderated by Orrin Keepnews
Conversation/Dave Brubeck Moderated by Herb Wong (4:00)
Saturday Night 8:00 pm
VerveJazz Night with Christian McBride
Sunday Afternoon 12:00 pm
SantaCruz County Honor Band
Folsom High School Jazz Choir
Gunn High School Big Band
Monterey High School Big Band
Monterey County Honor Band
L.A. County School for the Arts Combo
Sunday Night 7:00 pm
Brian Auger & Oblivion Express
Coffee House Gallery
Friday Night 8:00/9:30/11:00 pm
Saturday Afternoon 2:00/4:00 pm
MatthewShipp Duo with William Parker
Saturday Night 8:00/9:30/11:00 pm
Sunday Afternoon 2:00/4:00 pm
TimBerne/Michael Formanek Duo
Clinic: "Effortless Mastery" with Kenny Werner >(6:00 pm)
Sunday Night 8:00/9:30/11:00 pm
KennyWerner Trio with Dave Carpenter & Peter Erskine
Grounds passes for the festival are $65/full festival; $22/Friday; $27/Saturday; $27/Sunday. 1-800-307-3378.