There’s something deeply comforting and eminently appropriate about soaking up a musical performance surrounded by books, a phenomenon that gets taken to its logical conclusion at Bird & Beckett Books and Records. Nestled in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood, the store is one of the region’s best rooms for listening, with a small bandstand at the back wedged between shelves holding tomes on natural history and opera, dance, and theater (with a section dedicated to Shakespeare). An audience of more than a dozen makes a show feel well attended in the store’s cozy confines. On Sunday night listeners practically spilled out onto the street to hear tenor saxophonist Kazemde George, featuring vocalist Sami Stevens.
Reared in Berkeley, educated in Boston (neurobiology at Harvard and jazz composition at New England Conservatory), and now living in Brooklyn, George was playing the concluding gig in a weeklong Bay Area run that included five nights at Black Cat and one-night hits at Mr. Tipple’s, Stow Lake Boathouse, and The Mellow Haight, another business that doubles as a venue. His quintet features his creative and life partner, Sami Stevens, a vocalist with a pleasingly dry tone and a lush melodic imagination. They were joined by the New York rhythm section tandem of German pianist Manuel Schmiedel and Canadian drummer Adam Arruda. Covering the bass chair was San Francisco’s Giulio Xavier Cetto, who was a ubiquitous presence on Bay Area bandstands before a freak kitchen accident took him out of action for the first half of 2022. Back in action, he sounded as forceful and quick-witted as ever.
Sharing the front line, Stevens and George present a kaleidoscopic array of contrasts. It’s tempting to claim that they’ve honed a group sound that’s utterly their own, but the truth is they’ve developed three or four distinct modes that pivot on how Stevens uses her voice. The set opened with George’s intricate “Things Line Up,” a sinuous jazz tune from his stellar 2021 debut album, I Insist (Greenleaf Music). Playing the melody together, George and Stevens half-blended their sounds so that his pillowy horn glided below her line, as she avoided evoking a brassy or reedy tone.
Her original “Skylight” is a striking melody that slyly references two of Hoagy Carmichael’s most exquisite creations, evoking “Skylark” with its title and “Stardust” with the repeated reference to “love’s refrain.” It takes confidence to flirt with Hoagy, and Stevens pulls it off with aplomb. Judging by her new originals, she’s still stretching her wings. Her multipart song “Impossible Ballet” is a soul opus that builds to a gently ecstatic chorus. With her sharply observed lyrics, Stevens’s churchy “My Old Friend” felt like it could have been lifted from Paul Simon’s songbook. George embraces the challenge of improvising on these pieces, elaborating on the melodies concisely rather than using the tunes as platforms for extended improvisational leaps.
Switching back into jazz mode, George introduced a recent piece with a supple 6/8 groove inspired by several extended stays in Cuba, which again paired his tenor with Stevens’s wordless vocals. The set closed with a brisk sprint through her tune “Morning,” a strikingly contoured song that offered another facet of their partnership. With his ties to the region, George seems to line up a good run of Bay Area shows every six months or so, and each time they bring alluring new creations. Sunday’s show is available on YouTube, as Bird & Beckett has continued to archive the livestreams that provided an essential lifeline to music throughout the first 18 months of the pandemic. With performances almost every night of the week, the store is no less vital to the scene these days.