From behind his trap set, John Hollenbeck said to the crowd at Tabard Theatre: “If you’re a Sonny Bono fan, well, then you’ll hate this.”
What followed was Hollenbeck’s band, GEORGE, erupting into a gorgeous free-improv extreme-noise-terror version of “Bang Bang,” the old Nancy Sinatra track, written by Bono. Sonny Bono. GEORGE featured the explosive genius of Anna Webber on tenor saxophone and flute, Aurora Nealand on vocals, saxophone and keys, and Chiquita Magic on synths and vocals. A few pieces of gorgeously bent sonic magnetism then came next, dedicated to George Clinton and Georgia O’Keeffe. This was already a magical potion even before the Ukrainians jumped in.
This year’s San Jose Jazz Winter Fest was a brilliantly conceived collaboration with Kyiv’s Am I Jazz? Festival. Several Ukrainian musicians all showed up in downtown San Jose to perform and raise money for the country’s survival. Some came all the way from Ukraine, while others were based elsewhere in Europe.
Joining in one of Hollenbeck’s gigs were guitarist Igor Osypov, dancer Alina Sokulska and vocalist Olesya Zdorovetska, the latter two of which had just gigged the previous night, on the same exact Tabard Theatre stage, improvising with Vietnamese multi-instrumentalist Vanessa Vo. That show—the Transnational Viet-Ukraine Summit, I’ll call it—featured Sokulska doing a 30-minute solo dance performance based on ancient Ukrainian pagan rites. Vanessa did not do “Purple Haze” on her Vietnamese zither this time around, but the gig was a marvelous improv conversation nevertheless.
The global free improv dynamism continued the next night at Mama Kin, when Osypov built an ever-changing wall of interplanetary sound with Brooklyn synth-and-piano phenom Jason Lindner, whose credits could fill the entire wall. Drummer Brandon Farmer was the third genius on stage. All three took the crowd through a range of emotion, manifesting timeless audio textures, bouncy rhythmic strictness, and a wealth of noise, notes and nuances. The three of them had never before jammed together. Such is the beauty of free improv: when three people that don’t even know each other can find a common language on stage and bring the audience along with them.
In fact, this is how free improv usually unfolds everywhere else in the world, and when a city has a thriving improv scene, it usually means other genres are thriving there also. San Jose is not there yet, since what thrives most here is real estate greed, political indifference and suburban apathy, but nevertheless, it was great to see several Ukrainian musicians Instagramming themselves all over downtown San Jose before and after the gigs.
And speaking of real estate, the dumpy old Valley Title Building at First and San Carlos has already been transformed into several better uses, including a temporary venue, the Break Room, where several gigs went down.
Trumpeter Dennis Adu was born in Ghana but moved to Ukraine when he was two years old. In his first-ever American gig, he performed at the Break Room with a quintet, including one countryman that came with him, saxophonist Borys Mohylevskyi. The trip they endured to arrive in San Jose was a story in itself. From Kyiv, they took a night train across the border to a small town in Poland and then caught an eight-hour bus to Warsaw. After sleeping four hours, they took the first flight to Paris, which then went through Salt Lake City to SFO. The whole adventure took three days.
The Break Room was blessed by another journey on the following night, when virtuoso pianist Vadim Neselovskyi allowed everyone in attendance to join him on one of the most dramatic voyages I’ve ever seen a solo pianist take on stage. Over the course of 75 wide-ranging minutes, Neselovskyi’s composition, “Odesa,” an ode to his hometown, unfolded in several movements. Each section evoked a specific dimension of the city known as the Pearl of the Black Sea.
All of which continued through the following weekend. Ukrainian DJs took over the Continental, bringing Kyiv nightclub vibes to South First Street. One block over, 3Below Theatres screened numerous Ukrainian films.
In the end, the lessons here are not complicated. International collaborations enrich us. Friendships and partnerships emerge. Empathy increases. Everyone comes away a better person. San Jose needs more of this.