on life, music etc beyond mainstream

2019 15 Jun

Two Highlights of the 2019 Healdsburg Jazz Festival

von: Brian Whistler Filed under: Blog | TB | 2 Comments

This was an exceptional year at our local Healdsburg Jazz Festival, which has become one of the premiere small jazz festivals in the country, if not the world. It is mind blowing to think a lineup like this year’s could exist in the provincial parts of rural west Sonoma County, but it has not only existed – over the course of its 21 years it has thrived, attracting world class acts from around the country.

This year’s festival acknowledged the 50th anniversary of the ECM label. One of the first weekend’s highlights was the Carla Bley Trio with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard. Carla, who’s 83 and had cancelled the trio’s fall tour last year, seemed frail and very thin, but her focus and energy were apparent from the first note. The trio played a number of tunes off their first and second ECM albums and a couple new pieces as well. From the first downbeat there was such a palpable feeling of rapport between the musicians – deep listening was the evening’s theme, and every musical gesture was clear, concise and inspired. The tunes were respected almost like hallowed ground – even when improvising, the players kept in mind the spirit of the composition and exercised great restraint. These three artists are not “lick players” by a long shot, but here everyone digging in, mining the hidden gold within the musical structures.

Highlights for this listener were Wildlife and the beautiful Utviklingssang, a delicate, relatively simple composition, imbued with deep emotion, brought the house down. Carla announced the trio had just recorded new music in Lugano. She also said at the end of the show, “This is not goodbye.”



The other highpoint of the festival for this listener was the series closer, the Dhafer Youseff quartet, a surprising act for a festival that tends to cleave to the mainstream and has a tendency to be American-centric. It’s a pity the jazz crowd who attends these shows didn’t know who these guys were, because it was far from sold out – It should’ve been packed.

Although I really like Dhafer’s music, I had unfortunately been turned off to his recorded work by a couple of early releases that seemed too experimental and unstructured for my tastes at the time. (Malek). Years later, I only bought the excellent Abu Nawas Rhapsody because Tigran Hamyasan was on it. The album wears well- the compositions are strong (4 are collaborations between Dhafer and Tigran.) I have since gone back though his catalog only to discover the collaborations he has made with Eivand Aarset, Nils Petter Molvaer and other great Norwegian musicians. I have had a lot of catching up to do.

Tigran Hamyasan is an extraordinary pianist with a wide palette of musical interests, including jazz (he won the Thelonius Monk International Piano Competiton at the age of 19,) prog rock, heavy metal and electronica. You can hear some of these influences on Red Hail, Shadow Theater and Mockroot. His own recorded work tends to be highly compositional – there are a number of albums where he doesn’t even feature himself soloing on piano, even though he is a singular force of nature as a soloist.

The quartet performing last Sunday evening had one change in personnel from the album: instead of the highly competent, powerful (but to my ears, somewhat sterile) Mark Guiliana on drums, Marcus Gilmore was in the drummer’s seat. It made all the difference for this listener. As Gary Burton once said, “you only sound as good as your drummer.” Well, Marcus Gilmore, who incidentally is the grandson of none other than Roy Haynes, certainly knows how to make a band sound great. First, Dhafer chanted while Tigran extemporized. It was like a ritual, a meditative preamble for what was about to happen. After a few minutes of contemplative bliss, the band literally exploded – when Gilmore, Tigran and bassist Chris Jennings hit it, a visceral shockwave went through the room. At the end of that very first tune, the entire audience leapt to its feet

Besides being a wonderful singer (if an acquired taste,) Dhafer himself is a fine oud player, composer and soloist, yet generously gave plenty of blowing time to his sidemen.



Tigran Hamyasan seems to be the one pianist on the planet who possesses secret rhythmic knowledge – yes, there are many jazz pianists with advanced rhythmic concepts, but there are few as well versed in eastern rhythmic systems or as comfortable playing in odd meters as Tigran. It’s as though besides mastering the odd meters of his own Armenian roots, he seems to have studied and absorbed the Indian Konecol system. This study has allowed him to subdivide the long odd metered periods of this music like no other pianist. While I love hearing him on his own music, the openness of Youseff’s modal compositions, with their long beat cycles is the perfect musical landscape for Tigran to let forth his prodigious rhythmic and melodic concept. And whereas the compositional discipline he exercises on his own albums doesn’t seem to allow a lot of room for blowing, here he was given plenty of room to stretch. He seems to relish playing in this band as a sideman- watching him play in this context is quite different from seeing him play solo or even when he’s fronting his own band. He was far more expressive Sunday night, moving, smiling, interacting with the band and displayed fiery chops. Occasionally a line would fly off his fingers and he would literally be thrown backwards from his seat, as if a bolt of lightening had transmitted itself from the keyboard into his body.

Bassist Chris Jennings was the ground for all of the pyrotechnics. He laid down a solid foundation for these wild excursions, keeping the music rooted to the earth.

Marcus Gilmore seemed quite comfortable in this world of long, odd beat cycles (I counted 25 beats on one tune.) He is such a smooth yet soulful player-he made it all look and sound effortless. His technique is fabulous, but it’s his remarkable feel that helped glue the music together that night. The magic was also due to his incredible sense of dynamics. With music this open and modal, solos need to shape themselves and grow to a climax or one can feel like the player is treading musical water. This was never the case that evening; Every solo started at near zero, and took time to build rhythmic tension, eventually exploding into a crescendo as Dhafer would cue in the next unison line and beat cycle. With music this improvisational, it is worth mentioning the great skill Youseff exhibited in subtly directing the band, often cueing dynamic changes with a subtle hand gesture or bringing in a line with a slight nod. He often conducted the band from his oud, sometimes dancing around the stage, keeping eye contact with the players at all times.

It was a generous show; the band played two full sets. They ended the show with one of my favorite tunes off of Abu Nawas Rhapsody, Les Ondes Orientale, which starts off in 17/8 but goes through multiple beat cycles over the course of the tune. Dhafer said this was the encore and they wouldn’t be coming out for another one. (The band had flown in the day before and was probably exhausted.) That didn’t stop the audience from going wild – with a standing ovation that must’ve lasted 5 minutes or longer, even when the applause coalesced to the “one clap” and not without more than a little stomping, the band didn’t come back out. Which didn’t matter to this listener. This was one of the more memorable concerts I had seen in a year of extraordinary shows.

Here’s one of my favorite youtube videos, the band (with drummer Guiliana) playing the closer, Les Ondes Oreintale. Note that this video has over 1.5 million views – a high number for music like this …

This entry was posted on Samstag, 15. Juni 2019 and is filed under "Blog". You can follow any responses to this entry with RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. Michael Engelbrecht:

    All Manafonistas seem to have a knack for The Carla Bley Trio. And if I wouldn‘t have missed them in Cologne recently, I surely had written about them, too. It‘s a joy to read your article.

  2. Brian Whistler:

    Thanks Michael. And I’m telling you, the Dhafer Youseff Quartet was killing it.

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