.Bridging the Gap

Ukrainian musicians and artists perform with some of the Bay Area’s hottest talent at San Jose Winterfest 

Friday, Feb. 24, 2023 marks the one year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion and the war in Ukraine. Those in the East Bay are approximately 6,115 miles from Kyiv, the capital and most populated city in Ukraine. A direct flight from the Bay Area to Ukraine would take roughly 13 hours, but there are no direct commercial flights. 

Instead, the trip would take nearly 20 hours and cost upwards of $1,000 per ticket. Needless to say, even if someone wanted to rush and provide aid, the people of Ukraine are far out-of-reach for most.

Faced with the colossal geographic separation, it’s easy to feel frozen, unable to do anything other than watch—and cry. After all, these proud people who have watched or embraced loved ones as they die and endured for 365 days unfathomable uncertainty and terrifying conditions could be someone else, if fate or circumstance or destiny had caused one to live in Ukraine instead of in the United States. 

Thankfully, there is a way to pay tribute to Ukrainian courage and provide trustworthy monetary support for Ukraine. It comes at this year’s San Jose Winter Fest, and a special partnership between San Jose Jazz and the Am I Jazz? Festival, a jazz presenter based in Kyiv. The 2023 Winter Fest is billed as “Counterpoint with Ukraine” and offers a vast, cross-cultural program of music, film, art and dance that showcases a fine selection of leading Ukrainian musicians and artists who perform separately or elbow-to-elbow with some of the Bay Area’s hottest talent.

Importantly, ticket holders have the opportunity to support Ukraine with a special general admission ticket to most shows that includes a $10 donation. The donations received at the festival benefit Nova Ukraine (LINK), a registered international nonprofit that has an active chapter in San Jose. Nova Ukraine provides humanitarian aid to Ukraine and raises awareness about the country worldwide. Last year, the organization funded a variety of medical, energy, evacuation, food and infrastructure projects to aid people affected by the violence and the area’s harsh weather conditions.

The festival’s centerpiece—if there can be only one—is an exhibition of paintings by Ukrainian artist Lesia Khomenko. The series of large scale works, Unidentified Figures, is on display in the downtown’s “Unzipped Pavilion” that made its own West Coast Premiere on South First Street next to the SJZ Break Room. 

Khomenko’s six paintings depict haunting, gray-toned images of larger-than-life soldiers whose obscured faces illustrate the dehumanizing erasure of war: a force that demolishes not only architectural structures and human life, but decimates entire cultural histories. During the Ukraine-Russia conflict, an untold number of artworks, original music scores, films, scripts and literature, artifacts, archival records and other cultural treasures have been forever lost, plundered, stolen or destroyed.

Presenting art as the counterpoint to war’s grim realities could be said to be the festival’s truest and most noble message. The message is made urgent and significant in a number of newly commissioned projects that, among them, include trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and guitarist Rafiq Bhatia in an improvised duo appearance on Feb. 26. 

In an interview, Akinmusire tells me he wishes that readers could see the questions he’s asked in an interview. “Without that, it comes out like I just said some random things, as opposed to being guided,” he notes. To honor his wish, a drop-in Q&A:

Talk to us about the collaboration with Bhatia. What will you explore?

I’ve known Raiq for a long time, and we’ve worked [together] a couple of times. He’s in my group, my circle of creative, like-minded people in the world. The thing I’m excited to do is to improvise with Rafiq. Not this improvising thing where we just get together and jam, but really investigate some material together. As an artist, he’s a true improviser, in my opinion.

Does working with him or listening to Ukrainian music in general cause you to listen to your own instrument differently?

Often as an artist, I’m not concerned with that, with the humanness of all of it. I’m concerned with the things that are higher in us. That’s what I hear and actually feel in his music. It’s something he’s tweaked into also. It’s not a conscious thing. It’s not everything is la, la, la; it’s actually a very specific, conscious thing that we’re trying to do as improvisers. 

Music is a spiritual thing for me; I’m not concerned with the Rafiq and the Ambrose who are humans standing on stage. I’m more concerned with the souls that are inside of us and how we create. It’s bigger than us on the stage. It’s the thing that bypasses all of that, the thing that gets straight to the soul, the things that give goosebumps and make you cry. The thing that goes straight to the source. That’s what I mean when I say it’s the bypassing of humanness.

Talk about music as solace for the soul but also as celebration.

That’s interesting. I’ve always thought about the celebration aspect of music and who gets to celebrate. I’m playing Black music in the United States. I don’t know if I’ve ever been on the outside of that, celebrating. I don’t speak for other Black artists playing Black music, but I know I’m on the inside just trying to deal with that. I Imagine for the artists and musicians from Ukraine, it’s not a celebration and never will be for them. If it sounds joyful, maybe that’s more optimism than celebratory.

Is this project prompting you to think about future projects or directions you might pursue?

Yeah. I think so. When you play with a musician like Rafiq who has their own world, you can’t help but be impacted by that experience. I’m sure there will be something that comes from it that finds itself inside of me and my music. I hope it’s the beginning of a collaboration with Rafiq.

If you could go to Ukraine today and play on the streets, what would you play?

I don’t know if I would play. One of the best concerts my band ever did was in Kyiv about eight years ago. Olga, one of the co-curators of the festival, randomly sent a message to my manager and said she wanted to invite us to be there. I had never been there, but I could tell how genuine she was, so we went. We did a master class. Usually I let the band go, and we do them at the end of the tour. So we did our sound check, and I excused the band so they could go back to the hotel. 

Just as they were leaving, this flood of musicians and artists came into the room. You know, in London or Paris there are usually about 10 to 20 people who come for a master class, at most, and come because they’re required to come. This room was packed. My band looked at me, said what is going on? And they stayed. We had this great dialogue about art and music. We talked about what it means socially, really deep shit. 

Later that night, we were in a place that usually books large, rave-y things, drum based. It was like a big warehouse, and it was packed—for jazz. And the crowd was standing room [only], people yelling; it was so insane. I have a long history with Ukraine, and I have students from Ukraine who study with me in Basil. I’ve become good friends with Olga. So I have a long history with artists from the city of Kyiv, which is why I’m part of the festival.

You know that experience in Kyiv, it wasn’t that people were freaking out over us; it was the exchange. It was a circular thing: They were feeding off us, and we were feeding off them, and it just elevated the whole thing. Everyone in that room left in a different space and with something to take away from the experience, including us.”

Another intriguing, not-to-miss program Feb. 23 has San Francisco Bay Area-based Vietnamese performer and composer Vân-Ánh Võ collaborating with Dublin-based Olesya Zdorovetska, a performer, composer, curator and educator originally from Kyiv. Joining them is Kyiv born, Barcelona-based Alina Sokulska, an international dance artist, choreographer, performer, instructor and researcher.

The trio will have Võ and Zdorovetska creating in real time the score for “Magura,” a work inspired by ancient Ukrainian folklore. The dance presents a woman warrior, a deity with wings, a magic bird who flies above a battlefield to dispense blessings to the dying soldiers. 

In a video clip on the festival website, Sokulska’s incredibly liquid and volatile physicality is nothing short of mesmerizing and perhaps, the physical manifestation of both Võ’s 16-string đàn tranh (zither) and Zdorovetska’s wide-ranging soundscapes that most often draw upon electronic, jazz, Afro-Caribbean, and traditional Ukrainian and Sephardic music.

During a phone interview from Houston while waiting between flights while on tour, Võ says, “This project means a lot to me because I come from a war-torn country. During this time, I have found more in common with Ukrainians because we have shared the pain of students dying and how terrible war is to people. Ukrainians are trying to use art to help people to keep hope and healing. This is the same thing I’ve been doing with my music: to build hope and resistance and healing through art.”

Võ goes on to say violence is never the solution to any dispute. “It divides people, creates separation. People can never be the same as they were before the violence happened. Instead, you find a way to talk, to work together. War should never happen,” she states.

During her study of music under master musicians who had lived through wars in Vietnam, Võ said music consistently rose up as the greatest tool for people to unite, to communicate, to build strength and to continue striving for connection when all hope appears lost. “Music exists despite war and violence and divisiveness because it moves people to care and gives hope to others,” she explains.

“I want to use this opportunity to work with these two Ukrainian artists to create, but also to show and inspire people to see that music is the best way for us to ‘talk’ through difficulties and provide each other with hope. I know that I am going to do improvisation with the musician. I don’t yet know what I will do with the dancer. I am confident that we will learn how to speak, work and find our common voices together through music,” Võ continues.

The festival launched on Feb. 19, but there remain a host of noteworthy shows and happenings this week and through March 5. Among others:

It’s not too late to hop to the Hammer4 venue to catch pianist and bandleader Orrin Evans on Feb. 22. His swing and blues-illuminated hardcore jazz is informed by spiritual jazz traditions and has been evident since his first album, Justin Time, established Evans as a stellar ear-player. 

In his eight self-issued albums on his Imani imprint and in work with Captain Black Big Band (a communitarian-oriented ensemble whose latest album, The Intangible Between, and a preceding record, Presence, both earned Grammy Award nominations), Evans proves himself an infectious performer and a master of the “dive in and allow the music to lead” approach.

Winter Fest’s collaboration with Mama Kin has a number of intimate shows that pair music with food, artisanal cocktails and a low ($10) ticket price for some great acts. One to highlight features Mike Blankenship on Feb. 24, the date of the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine. The Oakland based pianist, vocalist and composer arrives with his band, featuring Tiny Lindsay on bass, Dame Drummer on drums and vocals, Jon Monahan on guitar and Omega Rae on vocals. 

Blankenship in the past has collaborated, recorded and toured as a keyboardist with Lauryn Hill, Sheila E, Ledisi and Michael Franti. His roots in jazz, R&B, hip-hop and gospel run deep and are shared with the next generation of music-makers in his role as co-founder and music director of Yeah, Art! The arts educational non-profit works to make art relevant and accessible to youth in the East Bay and beyond, with special emphasis on inspiring creativity within youth of color. 

Also on the same day, a flag raising at San Jose City Hall includes music, words of greeting from Ukrainian dignitaries and an encouraging shoutout for continued support of Ukraine from San José’s new mayor, Matt Mahan. After raising Ukraine’s flag, the City Hall will be illuminated in Ukrainian colors.

A few hours later at the Tabard Theatre, the performance of “George brings back the Sokulska with Ukrainian musicians for an assemblage of experimental jazz, ambient electronics, chamber music and dance. The set will feature the impact of a roster of musicians it’s fair to say most people have never before and may never again experience.

Musicians include: John Hollenbeck on drums and piano; Aurora Nealand on saxophone, keyboards and vocals; Anna Webber on tenor sax and flute; and Chiquita Magic on keyboards and vocals, with special guests Ukrainian guitarist Igor Osypov, as well as vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Olesya Zdorovetska. Opening the show as a warm up act, the SJZ’s High School All Stars will present transposed arrangements of Ukrainian folk songs and student arrangements created under the tutelage of Hollenbeck.

As for films, the gamut is equally diverse. With multiple screenings Feb. 22-26, there are VODURUDU, a 2022 film and improvisational folk ballet with foundation and primary themes relating to environment and the passage of time, and 2021’s Film Cabaret, a documentary cinéma vérité that follows an intellectual freak cabaret band and was created by seven actresses at Kyiv’s experimental contemporary theater, Dakh. 

From March 1-5, Stop-Zemlia and The Earth Is Blue As An Orange, two films from 2020, present stories with strong females in leading roles. Respectively, the first spotlights a high-school girl navigating her identity, friendship and love outside of conformist tropes; the second film introduces a woman, Anna, making a film with her children about their lives and surviving in a war zone.

Want one more? Don’t overlook SJZ Collective and Ukrainian trumpeter Yakiv Tsvietinskyi playing the music of two-time Grammy Award winner Roy Hargrove. The SJZ Collective showcases jazz talent from San Jose Jazz’s Summer Jazz Camp—the fact that the group’s members are also composers and arrangers is huge. 

The results of putting on one stage drummer Wally Schnalle, trumpeter John L. Worley, guitarist Hristo Vitchev, bassist Saul Sierra, saxophonist Oscar Pangilinan and Tsvietinskyi are unpredictable: exactly the right set up for a night paying tribute to Hargrove, who died far-too-early in 2018 at age 49. This show embedded in a festival to honor Ukraine not only carries Hargrove’s genre-crossing legacy torch forward; it reignites it with an invigorating, new flame.

For full details and tickets, visit sanjosejazz.org.

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