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Arts & Entertainment

San Francisco Jazz Festival: 5 essential performers

Panamanian-born pianist, composer and educator Danilo Pérez has embraced the global implications of jazz with a particular passion. He performs at the San Francisco Jazz Festival on June 14. | Courtesy Photo/SFJAZZ

Any way you slice it, the SFJAZZ Center is a perpetual jazz festival. Presenting concerts year-round in four-night blocks that often encompass a dozen shows, SFJAZZ is rivaled only by New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center when it comes to its sheer profusion of jazz-centric offerings. 

With 44 shows over 12 days the 39th annual festival picks up the SFJAZZ Center’s usual pace by a few beats, and focuses more on one-off shows rather than multi-night bookings. This year, as usual, the festival delivers a generous helping of world-class artists. If there’s a thread running through the disparate program, it’s Cuba’s extraordinary array of piano artistry. Here are five shows not to miss.

SF Jazz Festival

June 8-19
Various Locations

Gonzalo Rubalcaba & Aymée Nuviola's Band

SFJAZZ Center, Miner Auditorium, 201 Franklin St.
Thursday, June 9, 7:30 p.m. | $35+

Widely recognized as the most prodigious Cuban jazz pianist of his generation, Gonzalo Rubalcaba focuses on music from his 2020 album, Viento y Tiempo, a gorgeous collaboration with vocalist and childhood friend Aymée Nuviola. Known as La Sonera del Mundo, she’s a composer, actress and excellent pianist in her own right who’s won several Latin Grammy Awards and Grammys, most recently in 2020 for her album A Journey Through Cuban Music. With Viento y Tiempo (Wind and Time), she and Rubalcaba deliver an unabashedly emotional tribute to their mothers, their formative years in Cuba, and the music they imbibed so deeply. They’re joined by a seven-piece band that includes Aymée’s sister Lourdes Nuviola on backup vocals. 

Dianne Reeves, Chucho Valdés, Joe Lovano

SFJAZZ Center, Miner Auditorium, 201 Franklin St.
Sunday, June 12, 2 p.m. (SFJAZZ members only) & 7 p.m. | $45+

Talk about a power trio! Vocalist Dianne Reeves is an NEA Jazz Master who occupies a regal spot in the jazz firmament as a spiritual heir to Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. Chucho Valdés is the patriarch of Cuban jazz piano, an 80-year-old innovator who continues to forge an ever deeper synthesis of Afro-Cuban musical forms, jazz and European classical music. And tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano is a nonpareil improviser who’s been at the music’s forefront for four decades. Reeves and Valdés first performed together at the 2019 SFJAZZ Gala, and meeting with Lovano as a triumvirate makes for an historic encounter. 

Nicole Mitchell: Black Earth Sway & Brandee Younger

SFJAZZ Center, Miner Auditorium, 201 Franklin St.
Monday, June 11, 7:30 p.m. | $25+

Though she’s one of the most important composers and bandleaders of the past quarter century, flutist Nicole Mitchell is still introducing herself to Bay Area audiences. An Afrofuturist who used to lead Chicago’s visionary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), she comes to San Francisco with Black Earth Sway, a new iteration of her long-running Black Earth Ensemble. A celebration of Black sisterhood, the group features keyboardist Alexis Lombre, drummer JoVia Armstrong and Coco Elysses on diddley bow (the homemade one-string instrument derived from the West African zither). The double bill pairs Mitchell’s quartet with a trio led by Grammy Award-nominated harpist Brandee Younger, a luminous improviser and resourceful bandleader who is building on the legacy of pioneering jazz harpists Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane. Her superlative combo features veteran bassist Dezron Douglas, and drum great Marcus Gilmore, who’s played Miner Auditorium in recent years with tap maestro Savion Glover, piano legend Chick Corea, and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane.

Danilo Perez's Global Messengers

SFJAZZ Center, Miner Auditorium, 201 Franklin St.
Tuesday, June 14, 7:30 p.m. | $25+

Jazz is an omnivorous art form that eagerly integrates new sounds and idioms, and Panamanian-born pianist, composer and educator Danilo Pérez has embraced the music’s global implications with particular passion. Best known for his long tenure in Wayne Shorter’s volatile late-career quartet, Pérez launched the Berklee Global Jazz Institute in 2009, a program designed to meld an international cadre of young musicians into a seamless yet stylistically polyglot world-jazz chamber ensemble. The Global Messengers features graduates of the program, with Iraqi/Jordanian violinist Layth Sidiq, Palestinian cellist Naseem Alatrash, Jerusalem-born Palestinian percussionist Tareq Rantisi, American vocalist Farayi Malek, and Greek laouto (lute) player Vasilis Kostas. The concert focuses on music from Perez’s new album Crisálida (Chrysalis), a project influenced by musical traditions of the Middle East and North Africa. Cuban pianist Dayramir Gonzalez—a rising keyboard force who was mentored by Chucho Valdés, opens the evening with a solo set. 

Lavay Smith: Tribute to Peggy Lee

Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave.,
Sunday, June 19, 8 p.m. | $35+

While centennial celebrations of Peggy Lee (1920-2002) were preempted by the pandemic, San Francisco’s jump blues queen Lavay Smith isn’t going to let the diva go unsung. Performing with a stripped down version of her trusty Red Hot Skillet Lickers, she’s joined by fellow Lee fan Suzanna Smith, an Oakland jazz vocalist with a deep repertoire of Lee material. Los Angeles tenor saxophonist Rickey Woodard, a supremely soulful player too little heard in the Bay Area, joins the fray as special guest, while the rhythm section includes veteran bassist Ron Belcher, and Lee Bloom and Chris Siebert trading off on piano and organ. Harold Jones, the 82-year-old swing-defining drummer whose credits include recordings with Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Herbie Hancock, B.B. King, Ray Charles and a prolific five-year stint with the Count Basie Orchestra, is Smith’s ace in the hole.