Unlike the San Francisco Symphony and Opera nearby in Hayes Valley’s performing arts district celebrating with black-tie galas, SFJazz splits its opening night and gala (set for Jan. 30, honoring Mavis Staples) for a lower key event. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a celebratory air at the nearly 7-year-old SFJazz Center on Thursday, Sept. 5.
There were suits and sparkly tops (no tuxes or gowns here) as about 900 members reunited with their favorite ushers, box office squad and production staff. SFJazz founder and Executive Artistic Director Randall Kline and CEO Donald Derheim were also circulating among the crowd before kicking off SFJazz’s 2019-20 season with members-only concerts by renowned pianist, composer and National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Ahmad Jamal and jazz singer Veronica Swift with Emmet Cohen’s trio.
“One of the themes of the organization is this idea of paying honor to the past, the rich history of jazz, but encouraging it to move forward,” Kline said in his introductory remarks onstage at the packed Robert N. Miner Auditorium. “This week is a great example. Veronica Swift, a great young artist, as well as Emmet, the piano player in that group, pushing forward, as well as the master of masters, Ahmad Jamal.”
Opening with his composition “Without You,” from 1986, Jamal and his group — double bassist James Cammack, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena — swung as an impressively unified unit through all 10 of the concert’s numbers. Jamal’s “One,” from 1979, reminded listeners of the grooving side of his playing, and he briefly quoted Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’” for good measure.
While Jamal is best known for the elegance of his playing (frequently heard Thursday night in his solo and duo introductory explorations with Cammack) the 89-year-old pianist also demonstrated masterful dynamic control.
Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave” and Jamal’s own “Swahililand,” which he said he reckons is his most sampled work, received rowdy applaud, as did the group’s first encore that showcased Jamal’s signature interpretation of “Poinciana.” The capacity crowd was nearly beside itself when the four concluded with a reconstructed version of another standard, “Blue Moon.”
With Swift’s second show starting at 8:30 p.m., one could catch Jamal’s band and its multiple encores and still sample about 20 minutes of her late set where she was also fronting a quartet, though this one with Cohen, double bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Bryan Carter.
In interpreting Mel Tormé’s lament “A Stranger in Town,” the 25-year-old Charlottesville crooner embodied a pathos twice or even thrice her age. And like Jamal’s slyly referencing famous melodies, Swift made some modern substitutions on Bob Dorough and Dave Frishberg’s ice cold mid-1960s anthem “I’m Hip” by effortlessly replacing “French flicks” with “Netflix” and “Bobby Darin” with “Lady Gaga.”
With Jamal representing 70 years of jazz history and Swift showcasing the promising future of jazz, SFJazz’s opening night energized its members for an equally diverse new season.