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Billed as the largest jazz festival in the world, the San Jose Jazz Festival attracted more than 100,000 people over its three-day gig. The event so huge that trying to find the admission and will call booths is like being on a scavenger hunt – with no clues. There was music emanating throughout the entire downtown area. No matter where you were Latin rhythms from the Salsa stage and Afro beats on the main stage kept your ears reverberating in a sweltering crescendo of musical heat.
It ended on Sunday with a packed house in the Imax Dome Theatre - Tech Museum on the Smith Dobson Tribute stage with the Sony Holland quartet consisting of Sony Holland – vocals, Benny Watson on piano, Seward McCain on bass, David Rokeach on drums and Jeff Buenz on guitar.
It was a much-anticipated concert due to Ms. Holland’s return to the Bay Area specifically for this performance. They did not disappoint.
The quartet opened the show with the classic rock number “You Never Can Tell” by Chuck Berry. Sony ignited the crowd with her playful persona and electrifying voice. It was clear from the onset that this band knew their stuff whether it be jazz, rock or otherwise as they set the tone for the evening. With tunes like “All I Really Want To Do” by Bob Dylan and “Honky Cat” by Elton John, they simply rocked the house
An original tune written and composed by Jerry Holland titled “I Am Not Alone” brought out Ms. Holland’s silky smooth vocals. She belts out ballads with a true passion that can be felt through each word and phrase. Her vocal range and ability to flow flawlessly from one key into another is simply nothing short of perfection and is evident when singing ballads such as Sanssouci by Rufus Wainwright of which was also on tap for the evening.
We all have diverse tastes when it comes to music. We all have our favorites and not so much. The classic “What A Difference A Day Made” by Dinah Washington has always been a song where no matter who occupied the microphone I could live without hearing. So, when Sony introduced the song I thought it’s time for a nap. Was I wrong. Her rendition of this tune simply blew me away. She took it to new heights, which I have never heard. It was done with a powerful mix of vocals and instrumental genius, which kept me spellbound.
Ms. Holland enjoys the obscure. The song “Those Dancing Days Are Gone” by the poet William Butler Yeats and originally recorded by the First Lady of France, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy fits right into that obscure category. The original by Sarkozy is a very earthy/raw rendition while Sony’s take is a reggae-laden beat that gives the song new life and perfectly blends with the meaning behind the poem. Yeats would be pleased.
“Blame It On Peggy Lee” is an original tune penned by Jerry Holland and a tribute to one of Ms. Holland’s favorite singers, Peggy Lee. The lyrics are witty, precise and written specifically for Sony as are all the original songs. Her sensual and playful sides tease while performing this tune. The Jeff Buenz solo on this tune was hot! He worked that guitar into frenzy and had the crowd mesmerized.
Many years ago while having dinner at Zingari restaurant in the Donatello Hotel near Union Square in San Francisco, I had the pleasure of hearing Ms. Holland with a piano accompaniment performing in the lounge. I had heard Sony sing before but had never heard her sing the Etta James classic “At Last” until that evening. From the first note out of her mouth, my jaw along with everyone else in the room dropped. We were stunned by her powerful performance. Her passion and vocal elegance on that song are unmatched. It has become a tradition to end her concerts with the song. Her fans expect it and she always delivers. There also is no one else who can play that song to perfection backing her on the keyboards like Benny Watson. Together on that tune they are simply THE BEST! Sorry Etta, just my opinion.
One of the aspects of this show that made it so entertaining was Ms. Holland’s ability to connect with the audience and her players. She has a humorous side to her personality that can light and delight the audience with her natural charm. Another interesting thing is watching her eye contact with the crowd. I’ve never really seen any other performers who can do that. It’s as if she is personally connecting with each audience member and they love it. She moves and dances around the stage while performing, which I enjoy. I like animation on stage and she does it well. If you are lucky enough to be in the first three rows you get a glimpse of how well all of these musicians connect with each other. It makes for a lively and enjoyable concert experience.
Her players lend a unique spark of individual musical expertise to each song. Benny Watson on piano works those ivories and creates magic. He is animated and so much fun to watch as is David Rokeach on drums who is one of the best in the business. On bass, Seward McCain can make his instrument sing and get noticed. Last but not least, Jeff Buenz on guitar gives this band a Latin and reggae sound that rounds out and seals the deal. Individually, masters at their craft. As a whole, they are second to none.
This was definitely a concert worth seeing. Would I go back to the San Jose Jazz Festival next year in that blistering heat trying to navigate my way through a maze of complete and utter chaos? To see the Sony Holland quartet you bet I would.
Click here to read my interview with Sony Holland on JazzWest.com