Like New York, San Francisco has inspired many a musical artist. There’s the obvious Tony Bennett standard, but there are plenty of other Golden gate tunes that call to mind the fog, the hills and the mystery of the city by the bay. From The Decemberists’ “Grace Cathedral Hill” going back to Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair”) in the 1960s, there just seems be something about the town that brings artists to their knees. And to their instruments.
The most recent is Los Angeles-based saxophonist Brian Grace whose new collection, entitled “The Streets of San Francisco” is a sublime sonic walking tour along some of the cities most well known stretches. Each track is named for a street, which creates the framework for an easily enjoyable and provocative concept.
In the mid-1990s, the then band member of the U.S. Army was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco and as an enlisted man performed as as a saxophone player. During his years there, the seeds were clearly planted and the fruits of these inspirations ring loud and clear on the new CD.
The urban flavor that flows throughout the journey certainly has its roots in a lot of the tuneful and melodic smooth jazz movement that goes back to the 1980s. But Grace is a crafty and skilled player that never gets trapped within conventional commercial structures. Clearly feeling the unpredictable pulse of the city, he blends a hatful of grooves and styles that are at times lush and sophisticated combined with boppier, darker moods and movements.
Kicking off the set is “Van Ness,” a marvelously energetic and soaring piece of work. Complex and curious, it brings to mind the rich textures that David Sanborn was employing back in the 1970s. Back when David Bowie tapped Sanborn to use his sax as a lead instrument the way a guitar would normally be used on the album “Young Americans,” an entire generation of horn players was born as a result. I’m not sure if that seminal album ever inspired Grace, but clearly his chops come from good places.
We then move through “Lombard,” “Divisadero” and “Larkin,” all snazzy, street smart pieces that call to mind the many quirky angles and sharp sophisticated corners that help define the city.
The band varies from track to track with some truly exceptional players, including Chad Wackerman on drums (Frank Zappa, James Taylor, Allan Holdsworth) and Mike Miller on guitars (Chick Corea, Bette Midler, Boz Scaggs). They all bring their musical ‘A’ game, and Grace tackles a host of instruments including a myriad of saxes, piano, guitar, vibes, harmonica, a variety of percussion instruments and more. For all of his proficiency outside of the horn, clearly it’s the sax where Grace delivers his true soul.
Well-known Tubes drummer Prairie Prince appears on the track entitled “Geary,” and the one vocal appearance on the record, is courtesy of Naomi Star on the song “Larkin.” This in particular resonates beautifully. Smoky and silhouetted, it evokes all of the twinkling lights against the midnight blue sky; pinpoints that will eventually become enshrouded in the sweet, iconic fog.
But the album is not about guest players. It’s about all of the heavy musical lifting that Brian Grace does as he crafts his signature musical roadmap. “Presidio,” named for the place where Grace was stationed, is particularly lovely and delivers a classy ride back to where this idea began in the first place.
Oftentimes on sax solo albums, as electric and engaging as things may kick off, the player becomes a rutted into one style that may begin to feel slightly overworked midway through. What sets this collection apart and gives it some serious sparkle is the fact that each piece of music is its own story. The tempos and flavors and compositions are all distinctly different which gives the set and airiness and atmospheric quality which keeps you engaged as a listener. You just don’t know where he’s going to go next, but each little individual journey has its own rewards and by the end of it all, you feel like going back to see what you may have missed the first time around.
In a download culture, concept albums seem to have become dinosaurs, sadly. But thankfully, something like this comes along once in a while and reminds you that when it’s well executed, it doesn’t matter what age we live in. A good concept album is a good concept album and if the idea is seductive enough, it’s easy to go along for the ride.
I’m anxious at some point later this year to travel the city with “The Streets of San Francisco” as my soundtrack. But until then, it’s a feast of long-distance musical love for a city that most people embrace with passion and wonder. Just as I imagine they will embrace this wonderfully satisfying album.