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Jazzy Summer Songs

June 3, 2019

For lovers of jazz vocals, these are the best of times. While the ranks of the generation born in the Great Depression has dwindled to a precious few — the most important survivors include Sheila Jordan, Helen Merrill, Freddy Cole, Carol Sloane, Andy Bey, San Francisco’s Mary Stallings, and Richmond’s Ed Reed — the art form is in the midst of a youthful resurgence unlike anything in recent memory. All across the Bay Area, June brings a rising tide of song. Instead of offering a handful of concert picks, let’s highlight the profusion of vocal talent from near and far on display in the coming weeks.

37th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival | June 13–21

The action centers, as it so often does these days, on the SFJAZZ Center, as the 37th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival open in the Miner Auditorium on June 13 with Jazzmeia Horn. The 28-year-old Dallas native earned widespread notice before releasing a recording by winning a slew of prestigious awards, including top honors at the 2013 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition and first place at the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition in 2015. Her 2017 debut album A Social Call (Prestige) confirmed her status as a capaciously gifted young singer, and with her upcoming album Love & Liberation (Concord Jazz), slated for release in August, she’s ready to introduce her work as a songwriter. Performing with a tough combo featuring rising pianist Keith Brown, Horn also plays Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center on June 10.

The festival also features the seductively suave jazz crooner José James singing the songs of Bill Withers (June 15, Miner Auditorium), and Australian-born pianist, vocalist, and composer Sarah McKenzie (June 23, Joe Henderson Lab), who released an impressive album of originals in March, Secrets of My Heart (Normandy Lane Music). And tapping into the Bay Area’s deep well of international vocal talent, SFJAZZ presents Oakland’s powerhouse Cuban vocalist Bobi Céspedes (June 17, Miner Auditorium), and Santa Cruz’s extraordinary Brazilian singer, composer, pianist, and percussionist Claudia Villela focusing on the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim (June 19, Miner Auditorium). In another excellent match of artist and repertoire, the Bay Area’s Nicolas Bearde, an old-school R&B crooner with a deep feel for jazz, focuses on the Nat “King” Cole songbook with a quartet led by ace pianist Randy Porter (June 21, Joe Henderson Lab).

Jazz on the Plazz | June 19 – Aug. 21

No concert series in the Bay Area focuses more assiduously on jazz vocals than Jazz on the Plazz, which runs Wednesdays 6:30–8:30 p.m. on the Los Gatos Town Plaza June 19-Aug. 21. Produced by Los Gatos Music & Arts, the free series kicks off with Jane Monheit (who also performs in a duo with pianist Andy Langham June 21 at Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park Community Center). Like SFJAZZ, Plazz showcases Bay Area stars alongside out-of-town talent, with a June 26 double bill pairing the rising San Jose vocalist Amy Dabalos (aka Amy D.) and Berkeley’s ascendant Tiffany Austin, a sumptuously gifted artist who combines abundant smarts and soul.

Stanford Jazz Festival | June 21 – Aug. 3

While the Stanford Jazz Festival tends to fly under the radar considering its consistently world class offerings, there’s no overlooking this year’s program, which opens June 22 at Bing Concert Hall with generational talent Cécile McLorin Salvant, whose 2018 collaboration The Window (Mack Avenue) with New Orleans pianist Sullivan Fortner was her fourth consecutive release to win a Grammy Award for best jazz vocal album. Salvant, 29, also performs with Fortner at Kuumbwa Jazz Center on June 21. And the scintillating North Bay vocalist Jackie Ryan joins drummer Akira Tana and a stellar band of musicians from Japan to perform the music of Michel Legrand at Campbell Recital Hall on June 28.

The Sound Room | June 22–29

Jazz vocalists are often best experienced in intimate settings, and Oakland’s Sound Room has long served as the region’s most important outpost for the art form (though the programming also features many instrumental acts). On the verge of moving to a new location, the venue presents the savvy Los Angeles song stylists Judy Wexler on June 22 celebrating the release of an inordinately rewarding album Crowded Heart (Jewel City Jazz). Arranged and co-produced by piano great Alan Pasqua, the album features songs by peers and contemporaries like Luciana Souza, Kurt Elling, Sinne Eeg, and René Marie. She’s joined by pianist Keith Saunders, bassist Adam Gay and drummer Akira Tana.

Since first opening about seven years ago, the Sound Room has served as home base for Oakland vocalist Kenny Washington, a transcendent talent who immediately gave the new performance space gravitas. He makes what is probably his final appearance at the original venue before it relocates about half a mile up Broadway on June 29.

Cetrella Los Altos | June 8–22

A longtime champion of jazz singers who’s worked extensively with Washington, saxophonist Michael O’Neill has turned Cetrella Los Altos into a vital showcase for the region’s best singers and accompanists. The Saturday night series features Clairdee, a singer who brims with lustrous charisma (June 8), soul powered Santana vocalist Tony Lindsay (June 15), Kenny Washington (June 22), and Amy Dabalos, who’s releasing her first album in the coming weeks.

This is hardly an exhaustive list, and we’ll be back before long with more artists and venues.

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED's California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications.