Jazz Police


Monday, 27 July 2009
Papa's World: B.J Papa Group Live at Jazz At Pearl'sPrintE-mail
Written by Maxwell Chandler
Saturday, 26 July 2008

B. J Papa

B.J Papa is a North Beach institution. Just as things which are thought of as quintessentially Parisian made their way from other places before becoming cultural embodiments (Picasso and Spain, the croissant and Austria), B.J Papa (who is all that is hip in North Beach) came to San Francisco via Mobile, Alabama. Initially he found his way to San Francisco as a medic in the late fifties, stationed at The Letterman Hospital in The Presidio. His stay gave him a chance to delve into the then vibrant local jazz scene. When his tour was over he stayed on in the Bay Area, playing all the legendary, now extinct clubs.

Coming up through the jam sessions (system), B.J Papa has played with some of the biggest names in jazz, but also with laymen who had the passion but not necessarily the pedigree. The jam session would remain a creative catalyst for B.J. Papa, serving as a as a way for him to teach and also draw inspiration. For decades B.J. Papa would nurture each generation's up-and-coming musicians, showing them the ropes and letting his infectious passion for this art form rub off on them.

Whether he is at the piano or having a drink and swapping anecdotes at one of his local haunts, B.J. Papa knows everybody and gives off the air of making everybody feel included. This was perfectly exemplified by the eclectic crowd drawn to Jazz At Pearl's on July 10th. This diverse mix of people were all there to share in the joy of watching B.J. Papa do his thing, strangers sharing their enthusiasm and Papa stories before the show with their table neighbors.

Jazz at Pearl's is one of the few remaining jazz clubs that still possesses an air of authenticity. It is a room small enough that there are no bad seats but large enough to attract national acts. The sound engineer is very familiar with the room and there is never the waste of a first song to get volumes and E.Q's correct. Against one wall, large windows offer a view of the twinkling lights of the cityscape, the street scene serving as a sort of kinetic backdrop to the action onstage. It allows passersby to catch a glimpse of the action and further serves to enhance the often-felt sensation of being in a scene from a cool movie.

Without preamble, the quintet took the stage. The first song, “Blue-N- Boogie,” began with a strong opening statement by trumpeter Mike Olmos. He has a bright percussive touch reminiscent of the chief architects of the splatter school of playing (Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro). B.J. Papa provided chime-like comping throughout the song until he too took a solo. Kenny Hawkins, who spent the set doubling among tenor sax and flute, introduced himself in this first piece on tenor. His sax playing has a warm rounded tone. His soloing is economical, avoiding the extra flourishes that can sometimes cause then tension to sag.

B.J. Papa's solo had in its cadence a cascading, discordant yet beautiful water- breaking-upon-rocks-as-it-flows-downstream effect. Following in the footsteps and inspiration of all the great percussive players before him, B.J. Pap also in his youth studied saxophone and this is reflected in breaking up his fast runs with long fluid lines that one could imagine a horn playing. The steady pulse of cymbals over which the bass bubbled further unified the whole song together into a liquid joy.

Chris Ulf Bjorkbom on drums took the less-is-more approach with his kit. Using a smaller, traditional kit, he called upon a rhythmically rich palette of sounds, including, at more explosive moments, the ghost of Buddy Rich.

The second song of the set was a ballad, “I Love You,” which was not taken overly slow as is the recent custom of ballad delivery and what is the “American Idolization” of music. The song started with a trumpet statement which had a natural beauty in its contrast with Kenny Hawkin's flute solo, which chimed as if someone singing. After the first two solos came B.J. Papa's, a friend run into by chance who fits perfectly into the conversation without a moment's pause. B.J. Papa has always been able to change tempo and timbre within one song and here he deftly utilized that ability.

“I'll Remember April” is one of those standards that, no matter how many times one hears it, if done right it is always a welcome presence. Here it was given samba flavorings emphasized by drums and flute. The trumpet and piano intertwined themselves for the main theme, both departing for divergent solos without loosing the main thread of the piece. For his solo here B.J. Papa offered up clusters of notes, the rich effect reminiscent of chamber music. With a beautiful flute solo at the midsection, the song had the feel of a vintage Blue Note session from their heyday in the 1960s.

“Body and Soul” avoided being overly maudlin, starting with a rapidly descending trumpet figure which fell into the main theme. The sax didn't parrot all the great horns which have tread here before it, but managed to authentically call forth the song's emotional intention. It murmured, all things of the heart and night. The piano was the memory that you can not help but call upon, further emphasized by the percussionist's drums, the passage of time, day to night, yesterday until tomorrow.

Towards the song's end the sax switched for flute to add to the beautiful fragility of the song's emotional longing and avoid all obvious comparisons to other versions. The piano statement here was stately and romantic, playing over the sonorous murmuring of Attila Medveczky's bowed bass.

For the first set there were several original B.J. Papa compositions. “North Beach” was a full-sounding paean to the neighborhood. It managed, for anyone familiar with it, to capture the multifaceted aspect of the neighborhood that still manages to offer up both comfort and inspiration. Despite the fact that it was a pick up band, there was a cohesiveness to the playing which bespoke of all the musicians' abilities. The songs all had jam-like aspects to them but remained cohesive and tight.

B.J. Papa has always fed on and drawn from the energy of the audience. Here he was surrounded by an appreciative audience with strong support of a talented band in a good venue, the perfect storm of jazz.

For the full schedule for Jazz at Pearl's, visit www.jazzatpearls.com/jazz/