Tierney Sutton fronting the LMR Jazz Orchestra
Tierney Sutton with the LMR Jazz Orchestra | Credit: Robert Birnbach

San Jose Jazz’s Summer Fest was back at the Plaza de Cesar Chavez and its downtown environs last weekend, Aug. 12–14, and if the vibe wasn’t exactly a return to pre-pandemic normalcy, it was close enough to provide a mighty morale boost. The three-day event has long stood out as the West Coast’s most culturally embracive jazz festival, with programming that encompasses far more than overlapping Black musical idioms such as blues, R&B, soul, and funk. Summer Fest also includes a myriad of Caribbean and Latin American traditions, well beyond Brazilian and Latin jazz, which have been well ensconced on the American jazz scene for more than half a century.

With about a dozen stages presenting music throughout the day, there was no way to catch even half of the action. Eager to soak up many different acts, I kept on the move, often tearing myself away from one enthralling set to hustle off to another, trying to balance artists I hadn’t heard before with enduring favorites. These are my 10 Summer Fest highlights:

Howard Wiley
Howard Wiley | Credit: Robert Birnbach

Diunna Greenleaf with Little Village Foundation All-Stars (2:45 p.m. Saturday, Blues/Big Easy Stage) — Detroit blues queen Diunna Greenleaf gave a master class in the genre as a repository of timeless wisdom on the outdoor stage on the south end of the plaza. The Little Village Foundation label recently released her first album in more than a decade (and her first with national distribution), I Ain’t Playin’, and she brought that no-nonsense authority to the South Bay. With snug but loose-limbed support from the LVF All-Stars, she turned an extended version of her cautionary song “Sunny Day Friends” into invaluable relationship insight.

The Howard Wiley Show (3 p.m. Saturday, PG&E Silicon Valley Stage) — Tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley’s rhythm ’n’ funk quartet with electric bassist Marcus Phillips, keyboardist Lionel (L.J.) Holoman, and drummer Dante “Taz” Roberson was almost too powerful for the venue in the Signia Hotel. They were joined by the singular vocalist Lorin Benedict for an aggressive romp through Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation,” a piece played by at least two other ensembles during the weekend, where Benedict’s high-velocity scatting helped push the combo into overdrive.

Jeff Denson
Jeff Denson | Credit: MK Wagner

Silvana Estrada (3:30 p.m. Saturday, Jay Paul Company Montgomery Theater Stage) — Inspired by the left-leaning “nueva trova” movement, Silvana Estrada is a young Mexican singer/songwriter with a winsome voice, earnest delivery, and poetic spirit. Working with a trio featuring keyboards and drums, she accompanied herself on guitar. Channeling a bottomless well of sorrow, her solo rendition of “Si Me Matan,” a song about femicide in Mexico, packed a wallop all the more devastating for its gentle, undulating melody.

Jeff Denson Quartet featuring Paul McCandless (5 p.m. Saturday, PG&E Silicon Valley Stage) — Bassist Jeff Denson’s quartet with drummer Scott Amendola and pianist Michael Echaniz mostly focuses on Denson’s impressive originals, including a recent set of material written for reed master Paul McCandless, a founding member of the world-jazz ensemble Oregon, and for Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man. With only McCandless on hand, the band played his roiling account of avian conflict, “Owls and Crows.” But it was Denson letting his inner soul man loose on the vocals for a stripped-down arrangement of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” that left the deepest impression.

Bobby Watson and Curtis Lundy Quartet (6 p.m. Saturday, Hammer4 Stage) — Alto saxophonist Bobby Watson and bassist Curtis Lundy’s band with pianist Cyrus Chestnut and drummer Victor Jones played shows in the early afternoon and early evening, and they affirmed the adage that second sets are where the best music happens. The all-star quartet sounded commanding in the Montgomery Theater in the afternoon, but in the more intimate confines of the Hammer4, the group was transcendent. Joined on one tune by trumpeter Terell Stafford, whose career took off during his early ’90s stint in Watson’s band, the group sounded miraculous. Lundy’s bowed intro segued into a unison horn statement, blended as seamlessly as a classic Blue Note date by Jackie McLean and Lee Morgan.

Terell Stafford
Terell Stafford with the Kim Nalley Band | Credit: MK Wagner

Kim Nalley Band with Terell Stafford (7 p.m. Saturday, Hammer Theatre Stage) — Downstairs in the Hammer Theatre, Terell Stafford was the special guest with Bay Area vocal star Kim Nalley, who was accompanied by pianist Tammy Hall, bassist Michael Zisman, and veteran drummer Leon Joyce Jr., the most recent addition to her longtime band. One of the most poised and expressive trumpeters in jazz, Stafford proved to be an ideal foil for Nalley, matching her energy and bluesy swagger. They kicked off their confab with Ruth Brown’s early R&B hit “Teardrops From My Eyes,” swinging together with brisk and joyous efficiency.

Marina Crouse Band featuring Garth Webber (12 p.m. Sunday, Blues/Big Easy Stage) — East Bay blues singer Marina Crouse played a set mixing Chicano anthems, boleros, and rip-snorting blues, making each stylistic twist feel entirely natural. The transition from the classic love song “Sabor a Mí” to her take on War’s 1973 hit “The Cisco Kid,” with bilingual lyrics, felt seamless, a testament to her skilled and sensitive band.

Gary Bartz
Gary Bartz in “Charlie Parker at 100” | Credit: Robert Birnbach

LMR Jazz Orchestra featuring Tierney Sutton (1 p.m. Sunday, Hammer Theatre Stage) — A talent-laden 17-piece jazz orchestra directed by arranger Chris Walden, this heavyweight aggregation was in the area celebrating the release of the ambitious jazz Mass album Missa Iubileum Aureum, with vocalists Tierney Sutton and Kurt Elling at St. Dominic’s in San Francisco the night before. Backing Sutton at the Hammer Theatre, the orchestra played with superb dynamic control while blending a cast of Bay Area stalwarts and out-of-town players like saxophonist Tom Scott and drummer Gary Novak. Reaching back into her book, Sutton sang Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s masterpiece of self-pity, “Only the Lonely,” evoking Sinatra’s desolation and legato phrasing with grace and subtlety.

Javon Jackson’s “Charlie Parker at 100” (2 p.m. Sunday, Sobrato Main Stage) — Persistent sound problems kept this all-star lineup from coalescing for much of its set, though the improvisational prowess of the alto saxophonists Gary Bartz, Donald Harrison, and Charles McPherson couldn’t be contained. The breakout moment came with McPherson’s searing rendition of “Lover Man,” a song Parker recorded in 1946 in the midst of an emotional breakdown and that Dial Records infamously released against his wishes. While the exquisite rhythm section tandem of bassist David Williams and drummer Willie Jones III maintained tightly coiled tension, McPherson made the plea his own.

“With Love to Geru” (3 p.m. Sunday, PG&E Silicon Valley Stage) — Co-led by baritone saxophonist Aaron Lington and trumpeter/flugelhornist John Worley, who’d both played earlier in the day with the LMR Jazz Orchestra, this project paid tribute to the music of Gerry Mulligan and various collaborators, including Bob Brookmeyer, Chet Baker, and Paul Desmond. While Worley possesses a gorgeous tone and played with his usual aplomb, the set’s most unforgettable piece was Lington’s quartet version of Mulligan’s “Song For Strayhorn” with pianist Murray Low and drummer Wally Schnalle (a fusion-oriented player whose deft brush work made him seem like a natural for this kind of chamber jazz setting). A sumptuous homage to the nonpareil jazz composer and Duke Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn, Mulligan’s tune brims with love, affection that Lington lavished on both men.