Fillmore Jazz Festival

Fillmore Jazz Festival Offers Up Surprises Block by Block

Jesse Hamlin on July 6, 2011
Fillmore Jazz Festival

A sea of sun-drenched people flowed along Fillmore Street on Saturday, partaking of the musical and gustatory pleasures — not to mention the beer, wine and margaritas — served up by San Francisco’s biggest street bash. Blues and barbecued oysters. Fried catfish and Nigerian folk songs. Those were some of the sounds and scents that wafted through the air at the annual Fillmore Jazz Festival, a swinging two-day affair that stretches from Jackson Street in tony Pacific Heights down to Eddy Street in the gritty heart of the Fillmore District.

With music pouring from three stages, and unscheduled street performers popping up unexpectedly, the best way to take in the festival was to simply float and follow your ears. Mine took me to the corner of Fillmore and California streets, where the sensational California Honeydrops were playing an original mix of New Orleans R&B and jazz, blues, soul, and gospel music. A quintet that rocks, struts and sways, the band is led by the Polish-born Lech Wierzynski, a soulful singer with a great falsetto. He plays guitar and good Louis Armstrong-style trumpet, riffing joyously with tenor saxophonist Johnny Bones.

The California Honeydrops

“I heard you a few blocks away and thought you were black,” an admiring African-American woman told Wierzynski after the show. “Man, you’ve got soul.” The blue-eyed singer beamed.

The Honeydrops lit up the big crowd — a multicultural mob that included naval officers and tattooed hipsters — with their good-time music. They dug into Chuck Berry and Fats Domino grooves, early-jazz blues, a rousing version of Wilson Pickett’s Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You, and a dancing original called Breakdown that married South African township jive with New Orleans second-line parade music.

Speaking of which, a second-line street band called the Brass Boppers seemed to appear out of nowhere just south of Geary Boulevard, one of several unexpected delights. Another was the terrific blues guitarist and singer playing in front of Rassela’s Jazz Club and Restaurant. A blues-loving Spaniard named Adrian Costa, he drew a circle of admirers, who stuffed dollar bills in his hat and snapped up his CDs.

Around the World on One Street

The Nigerian Brothers
The Nigerian Brothers

Up the street, the first-rate Contemporary Jazz Orchestra was playing a pleasing mix of familiar modern pieces — among them Oliver Nelson’s gutsy blues Yearnin’ and Thad Jones’ bopping Little Pixie II — and crafty numbers composed by members of the band.

For years the house big band at Pearl’s in North Beach, the CJO is a well-oiled ensemble comprising some of the best jazz players on the local scene. They include tenor saxophonist Sheldon Brown, who took a bracing solo on a lovely tune titled When We Walked in the Sun — perfect for Saturday’s balmy scene — and the gifted trumpeter Erik Jakobsen, who contributed a high-spirited waltz called Invigoration.

Wandering past the vendors selling everything from balsamic vinegar to African sculpture, you might’ve come upon the Nigerian Brothers, a graceful trio led by the guitar-playing singer Ken Okulolo. He, another guitarist, and a percussionist sang and played lilting West African folk melodies and highlife songs.

Jazz Festival crowd

Or you might’ve caught the VNote Ensemble, led by the Venezuelan singer and multi-instrumentalist Jackeline Rago. Another fine Bay Area band booked by Fillmore Jazz Festival Artistic Director Jason Olaine (who books Yoshi’s on Fillmore Street), it played a piquant mix of Venezuelan folk music and jazz. Rago wove phrases from “New York, New York” (from Leonard Bernstein's score to On the Town) into a piece by the Venezuelan composer Lorenzo Herrera, who’d gone to New York in the 1930s with high hopes but discovered that, as the title says, The North Is an Illusion.

Saturday’s musical smorgasbord also included the sweet-voiced Hawaiian singer Faith Ako; Mingus Amungus playing its raucously swinging mix of jazz, funk, and hip-hop; and the wild New York pianist and electronic keyboardist Marco Benevento and his trio, playing a kind of jam-band trance music full of chiming little melodies and crashing chords that circled and morphed. Call it experimental party music. It was fun.