The inaugural SF Offside Festival was a brilliant cross section of the Bay Area’s thriving jazz scene. Envisioned by co-founders Alex Pinto and Laura Maguire as the missing outlet for local jazz musicians-most festivals feature out-of-town acts and skip over the world-class musicians available in the area-the festival represented many overlooked colors of the jazz spectrum that thrive in the Bay. The event spanned over three nights between May 24 and May 26, taking festival goers to two Mission District venues and one in downtown San Francisco. Ranging from avant-garde to classic jazz, the groups exhibited one similarity: the remarkable ability to play together as a single sophisticated unit, despite the music’s improvisatory nature. They navigated changes in tempo and feel, built dynamics and structural architecture, and created masterfully polished performances-while maintaining and celebrating the varying levels of musical freedom afforded in jazz.
The first night of the festival, entitled “Excursions,” took place at El Valenciano in the Mission District and included Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch; the largely atonal and a-rhythmic avant-garde trio of Dave Rempis, Larry Ochs and Darren Johnston; and Aram Shelton’s fast-paced These Are Our Hours.
Bait & Switch was remarkable in its ability to change, not only between grooves, but also from established tonal keys and rhythms to completely free non-tonal playing lacking rhythm. Their first tune began completely free in this way, then quickly settled into a groove led by drums and guitar, while bass and tenor doubled on the melody. The meaning of Bait & Switch became clear as the band continued to switch from free improvisations to different grooves, often suddenly without any clear warning. These surprise changes brought life to the music, which already demonstrated tastefulness and good playing. While Lisa Mezzacappa never really stopped laying down some sort of structure with her bass playing, guitarist Jon Finkbeiner and drummer Vijay Anderson were the real heart of the rhythm section, working together almost like a drum and bass team.
Rempis/Ochs/Johnston delivered on the first promise of totally improvised music. Their playing demonstrated the best of this aesthetic-that favors texture, tone, phrasing, dynamics, and contrasts over harmony, melody and groove. Essential to creating musicality from these elements is communication within the band. With this kind of totally free, improvised music, anything goes, but these musicians played in a way that showed they were listening and placing sounds in context. (The style is reminiscent of the twists and turns of normal conversation. People can go in many directions and touch upon many subjects over the course of a single conversation, but still be coherent and make sense.)
These Are Our Hours went the other direction stylistically, with more deliberately arranged tunes. Improvisation sections were often “free,” but retained certain elements of either harmony or rhythm to give each piece smoothness and continuity. The arrangements worked very well to showcase not only great group playing and communication between the members, but also the virtuosity of each musician on their respective instruments. For example, Mark Clifford’s vibraphone was brilliantly featured both in the context of the group and as a soloist. The musical lines supporting Clifford’s solo sections were often paired down, allowing him to demonstrate not only technical virtuosity, but control over every aspect of tone and texture with his choice intervals and incredibly rich pianistic chords. These textures were also expertly used underneath the perfectly matched horn duo of Aram Shelton and Theo Padouvas during the written melodic sections and solos.
Night two at the 50 Mason Social House was titled “Onward” and brought three trios that stuck closer to a set form-meaning playing off of set harmonies and forms-but still managed to showcase strong collective playing and innovative approaches to a classic format.
Of the three trios, Alex Pinto’s was the most innovative and tight, incorporating impressionist harmonies, Hindustani ragas, and odd forms. The group-Alex Pinto on guitar, Scott Brown on bass, Shaun Lowecki on drums-flawlessly executed the odd time meters and brusque section changes in Pinto’s arrangements, and matched each other’s swells and declines in intensity, making each song a complete journey with a beginning and an end.
Erik Jekabson opened his trio set with a solo cadenza, creating a sparse but effective landscape of trumpet loops using a looping pedal. The effect was sublime as Peter Barshay and Greg Wyser-Pratt joined in on drums and bass respectively, giving the illusion of a piano-less quintet, with three horns providing harmony over the rhythm section.
Marcus Shelby’s trio featured young Joe Warner on piano and Tiffany Austin on vocals. Warner’s tasteful piano playing complemented Shelby’s booming virtuosic bass over an amalgam of vocal standards, while Austin’s command of pitch, rhythm, and harmony held its own against the two instrumentalists, making the group truly a trio, as opposed to a duo featuring vocals. Together, the three demonstrated creativity and musicality, in addition to great listening and awareness of each other, as when they collectively skipped over the second half of the “A” section of Warner’s march-like arrangement of “In a Sentimental Mood.”
The third night, “Junction,” took place at Viracocha in the Mission District and featured groups who bent or blended the genre of jazz in some way.
Secret Sidewalk, composed of three sampler players, a drummer and a saxophonist was perhaps the most experimental, showing how jazz elements are incorporated into electronica, rather than the other way around. Nonetheless, having four musicians create a thick interlocking drum-and-bass pattern resulted in a great atmosphere for Marcus Stephen’s saxophone improvisations.
The Klaxon Mutant Jazz All Stars matched the hard grooves of Secret Sidewalk, though from a more jazz-oriented perspective. Drawing from electronic music, they played with layers of sound, often pulling the rhythm section in and out from under a repeating horn line, as well as adding and subtracting different interlocking parts. Perhaps the highlight of their set-and another example of effective arranging-was a series of abrupt tempo changes from fast and funky to slow and incredibly deep, which elicited audible shouts and groans from the audience for a good minute and a half.
The Supplicants closed the festival with what could be a good summary of the bands showcased over the course of the three nights. Their set was completely improvised, drawing from the freedom of the first night (“Excursions”), and reminiscent the Rempis/Ochs/Johnston trio. They, however, always settled on an underlying groove or rhythm like other bands from the third night (“Junction”). And, similar to the second night (“Onward”), The Supplicants took trio playing in a new direction, with Hamir Atwal’s and David Ewell’s flexible but deep grooves leading David Boyce’s monstrous tenor tone and choice scales.
This incredibly rich sampling of musicians and diverse array of groups pay tribute to the Bay Area’s jazz scene. This year’s Offside Festival could not have been more successful in demonstrating the vibrancy of the community, drawing a healthy crowd each night to witness the depth of jazz that is often overlooked in favor of the often more commercial international stars or generic dinner and lounge music. One can only hope that as the festival grows, so will awareness of this music, local to the Bay Area and well deserving of a wider audience and appreciation.