All good things must come to an end. Thirty-three days later, Earshot Jazz Festival capped another year of ever-more-adventurous bookings. In a festival that ranges from relatively safe jazz standards to avant-garde afrofuturist theatrics, last night at the Triple Door hit that sweet spot in the middle. Something recognizable as jazz but pushing the envelope of instrumentation and improvisation.
The show was billed as Amendola vs. Blades, the Berkeley-based duo of Wil Blades on Hammond organ and clavinet matched with Scott Amendola on drums. The two are celebrating a new album, Everybody Wins, which was an apt description of the reaction from a packed house in the downtown dinner theater when these two took the stage alongside local saxophone innovator Skerik, bass guitarist Jeff Baker, and madcap Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista.
All three guests appear on Amendola vs. Blades’ new album and the show felt more like a quintet than a duo with three supporting artists. While the nominal headliners traded punchy riffs with a psychedelic tinge, I was most intrigued by Skerik and Baptista, who clearly have an astral rapport all of their own.
Skerik’s saxophonics need no introduction—check him out here and here, if you need a primer—and he was in his prime last night at center stage. But I dare say that the wild antics of Baptista, who has lived in the U.S. since the 1980s and was a close collaborator of New York downtown scenester John Zorn, stole the show.
Baptista brought an endless bag of tricks to the stage—“His load-in must have been a beast,” my concertmate quipped—that proved a source of constant whimsical delight. He started off the two-hour show dangling a chain over the mic and ended in the encore set with a megaphone. In between, he cycled through a dreamcatcher with dangling bells, a modified berimbau, a vest frottoir, a hand-clapping percussion that I couldn’t imitate for the life of me, and what can only be described as a giant dog toy that sounded like a baby’s rattle.
As he marched around the stage blowing on a whistle like a Carnival bandleader and sang snippets of “Nego do Cabelo Duro” through hazy layers of dub and reverb, his Brazilian upbring shone through. Anyone who has dug into the back catalog of Os Mutantes or played Caetano Veloso’s “Tropicália” on repeat would've felt right at home immersed in Baptista’s boisterous soundscape, much of it conjured from instruments he made himself.
The combination of artists was a perfect storm. Skerik’s hometown appeal—my piano-playing cousin reminisced about the legend crashing a house party jam session he hosted after a Garage à Trois show at the Fillmore in San Francisco some 20 years ago—and Baptista’s international star power brought out the crowds. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house at the Triple Door on a Wednesday night in November. The 2019 edition of Earshot Jazz Festival went out on a high note indeed.