Over the years, Grace Cathedral on San Francisco’s Nob Hill has hosted countless concerts of importance. Among them, both in 1965, were Duke Ellington’s magnificent Second Sacred Concert and pianist Vince Guaraldi’s Grace Cathedral Concert with his trio and an 86-voice choir. Rifftides reader and veteran audio expert Jim Brown attended last week’s more secular concert at Grace Cathedral. Presented by the SFJazz organization, it featured four clarinetists. Jim kindly offered to share his impressions of the event. SFJazz sent Ronald Davis’s photographs.
By Jim Brown
At Grace Cathedral we heard four very different clarinetists put on a magnificent display of improvisation at its very best. The Cathedral is a huge, very reverberant space. The only way to success there is to tailor the performance to the acoustics, and these four masters, Don Byron, Anat Cohen, David Murray, and Todd Marcus, did just that, from their first notes to their last.
Their entrances set the tone, Murray coming from the most distant altar at the front of the church, Marcus from the very rear, Byron and Cohen from left and right transepts, in a performance that can best be called ethereal.
Working with no microphones, the musicians played the huge cathedral like another instrument, much as did J. S. Bach, whom some consider the world’s first jazz musician, playing organ in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig nearly three centuries earlier. The entrance was one of the night’s high points, and there were more, among them Anat Cohen’s solo reading of Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You,” “My One and Only Love” by Marcus, and a short four part piece that sounded like Ellington.
Each player got to do his own thing solo and with another horn for support. Murray (pictured left), an outside player, went outside for his solo and got Byron to go out with him. Cohen and Marcus went more lyrically, Byron somewhere in the middle. The solo and duo pieces were interspersed with arranged pieces for the ensemble; each, again, stylistically different. Some were more satisfying than others.
It seemed to me that Don Byron (pictured right) was the real catalyst, and if there was a leader, it was he. I consider him one of the most creative and important musicians of his generation—he gets the history and the many related paths that jazz and its related forms take. He respects them, and he performs them with great sensitivity and fire. We heard him several years ago at Grace, and this performance was no less sensitive or exciting. He clearly understood Grace, and played to it beautifully. And on other occasions, we’ve heard excellent bands he led playing the music of the small bands of the ’30s (Duke, Raymond Scott, John Kirby), Prez, the blues, and klezmer.
Part of playing to Grace’s acoustics is to do so with flowing lines, letting complex harmonies, which the room supports, take the place of rhythm, which the acoustics would destroy. This was a night that did not “swing” in the conventional sense, but it was great jazz.
Five stars to these four fine musicians, and to SFJazz for doing everything right.
Thanks to Jim Brown for permission to post his review and to Ronald Davis for his photographs.