Vivacious virtuosity and superb swing!
SJW Saxophone Summit
Vivacious virtuosity and superb swing!
The five supremely talented saxophone artists on this concert come from three of the four corners of the globe: Speakman and Stephens work in New York City, Knudsen and Wolff are Bay Area residents, and Elhay comes to SJW from Down Under, in Australia. All are virtuosos, with beautiful sounds and astonishing improvisational skills. Tonight’s concert will showcase these great musicians alone and in combination, backed by a world-class rhythm section, playing standards, classic jazz tunes, and original compositions.
Lynn Speakman, Kasey Knudsen, Sylvan Elhay, Patrick Wolff, Dayna Stephens, saxophone
Carmen Staaf, piano
Noah Garabedian, bass
Allison Miller, drums
Michael Mitchell, drums
Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet
Whether staged in a concert setting or a loose and informal afterhours spot, jam sessions can provide horn players with a tremendous amount of essential information. Young artists can measure themselves against their more experienced colleagues, try out new ideas, and get a sense of the repertoire they’re expected to know. Established cats get a chance to hear upcoming players, do a little talent scouting, and maybe pass on some hard-won wisdom. But the most important function of an event like tonight’s talent-laden Saxophone Summit is social rather than strictly musical.
Featuring a brilliant cross section of saxophonists, the Summit includes Pittsburgh-based Lynn Speakman and New Jersey resident Dayna Stephens, Bay Area stalwarts Kasey Knudsen and Patrick Wolff, and Sylvan “Schmoe” Elhay from Australia. For Stephens, the East Bay-raised saxophonist who’s been affiliated with the Workshop since he was a mid-1990s standout at Berkeley High, the opportunity to gather with fellow reed players is rare and welcome. “It’s not often I actually get to hear and play with other saxophonists,” says Stephens, whose latest album Peace (Sunnyside) is a ravishing ballad session with a cinematic bent.
“I’ve known Patrick for about 20 years and love his sound,” Stephens continues. “Kasey and I actually were at Berklee together, and she’s one of the few players who I love on alto and tenor. She’s a great improviser on both horns. Lynn Speakman is really swinging, and while I’ve known Schmoe on faculty for years we haven’t played much, so this is a good opportunity.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that Stephens returns to Stanford as a new man. He spent some seven years dealing with Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis, a kidney-destroying disease that kept him tethered to dialysis. He continued to compose, perform, record, and tour, cementing his status as one of the most respected saxophonists of his generation, but his ability to travel was severely curtailed. With his aunt providing a donor kidney, he finally moved to the front of the transplant line and had the operation last Oct. 14.
“I feel freaking great,” he says. “The doctors couldn’t be any happier. The kidney has taken and my heart function is perfect. I’ve adopted a new eating lifestyle. The diet for dialysis really sucks. I couldn’t eat half the veggies I like. Now I can do my thing, which is plant-based, with very little oils. I’ve lost a bunch of weight, and have a lot of energy. It’s night and day compared to the last seven years.”’
Part of the pleasure provided by a gathering like tonight’s concert is the mutual admiration felt by the players. When Patrick Wolff moved out to the Bay Area in 2009 to take a staff position at SJW, he had already explored a vast array of music. After studying with saxophone masters like Frank Foster, Ralph Lalama, and George Garzone, he embraced creative challenges outside of jazz, touring with indie rockers Calexico, art rockers Kayo Dot, Nigerian reggae star Majek Fashek, and Nigerian fuji music legend Adewale Ayuba.
An ambitious composer who has written a large body of music for six and seven piece bands, he’s also delved deeply into the ingenious tunes of overlooked masters such as pianist Elmo Hope, and saxophonists Lucky Thompson and Clifford Jordan. One outlet for this abiding passion is his San Francisco Repertory Jazz Quartet, which performs regularly at Club Deluxe in the Haight. But he’s also taken to the airwaves with a Monday night show on KCSM called “Have You Heard.” His July programs have focused on bebop horn players Ernie Henry, Wardell Gray, Fats Navarro, and Allen Eager. As a sideman, he plays alto in pianist Adam Shulman’s Sextet, tenor and clarinet in the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra, and continues to collaborate with Mexican singer/songwriter Diana Gameros.
While he hasn’t worked with Sylvan Elhay, Wolff has interacted a good deal with the other horn players on tonight’s program. He and Knudsen often end up subbing for each other, and he’s caught her from the audience more than shared the bandstand though “she did a couple of gigs with my sextet, and we did some gigs with Graham Connah a while back,” Wolff says. “Kasey is one of the more thoughtful and structured improvisers out here, and I think she’s smoking on Ian Carey’s new record, Interview Music. That album is knocking me out, and she’s blasting on that thing.”
He’s been duly impressed with Lynn Speakman’s fluency and power over the years, describing her as “a hard-core bebop alto player. She’s kind of remarkable. She’s got this Johnny Griffin thing going on, being pretty tiny with a huge sound. I love watching kids see her play for the first time, and they’re eyes just getting wider. She’s also a great flute player and arranger. She’s one of those people who are so professional. That can sound dry, but I mean that she makes everything happen. She’s in the middle keeping everyone grounded, the glue that holds an ensemble together.”
Reuniting with Stephens back in good health is particularly gratifying for Wolff, who notes they’ve been friends since meeting at SJW in high school. He’s hoping that Stephens pulls out the baritone sax. “He has a different voice on bari, not like he’s just playing tenor in a lower register,” Wolff says. “Whatever horn Dayna picks up he plays with a lot of heart and personality.”