Walking to the new SFJAZZ center last night, we were concerned with the time. Thanks to the state of downtown San Francisco traffic and parking, we would be walking in after the scheduled start time. A woman at the stoplight overheard us, and gave us a look.
“Relax, baby,” she said. “It’s jazz.”
While her wise words sank in, she crossed Franklin Street in a brief lull of traffic, against a red light, with headlights barreling toward her. We opted to do as she said, not as she did, and waited for the light. As luck would have it, we found our seats several minutes before tabla master Zakir Hussain took the stage.
First onstage was a group performing a piece commissioned by SFJAZZ in 1998, a poem by Rumi set to music featuring Hussain, three other tabla players, sax, piano, vocals and a dancer with bells on her ankles. The result was organic combination of Eastern rhythms and textures with Western jazz style. Hussain at times played a walking bass line on his tabla, and the other tabla players kept the beat with low and high sounds, mimicking a drummer with a kick and snare. Each player took a solo, culminating with the four tabla players furiously tapping fingers and slapping hands on their drums in complete synchronicity at unfathomable speed.
Trying to listen to the individual notes in this situation is like trying to follow each individual flash on a set of strobe lights. Just when my head was about to explode, they finished with a finale rivaling a 15-second fireworks display.
After a brief rest for applause, Hussain began again, this time on his own. Simple, relatively slow rhythms started flowing and everyone was on the edge of their seat, awaiting more fireworks. He toyed with the crowd, tapping out the melody to the William Tell Overture (Lone Ranger Theme) and other instantly recognizable tunes. Before long, he stopped briefly to ask, “Are you wondering where this is going?” prompting laughter from the crowd. “Well, I’m waiting for my friend Giovanni Hidalgo.” He had captivated the audience simply by vamping. His facial expressions and dry humor brought to notion the comedy of Fred Armisen—expect that Hussain’s jokes were short, and spoken on the tabla.
Having heard Hidalgo and Hussain together before on recordings, I had some idea of what to expect. But from the second they started playing, I was blown away. Hidalgo had a group of five congas, one as his main drum and the others set around it in a horseshoe pattern. Hitting his hands against the instruments with blistering speed (for a mere mortal it would be literally blistering, but Hidalgo has probably built up calluses), using doubletaps, excellent control and even the texture of the drum like a jazz drummer uses brushes on a snare, Hidalgo was a crowd favorite. In his vest and scally cap, he effortlessly created melodies and crazy rhythms on his set, all the while trading phrases with Hussain. Playing in 5/8—an odd time signature compared to the familiar 4/4 or 6/8—the duo made the music flow and seem natural despite the absence of any written music whatsoever.
Intermission was necessary at this point. Just like a 14-course meal, breaks are necessary to digest and appreciate the art just placed in front of you. The $64 million SFJAZZ Center opened to much fanfare in January. It lives up to that fanfare, with an intimate, 700-seat space just big enough for jazz’s biggest names, but small enough for student performances. Tile murals adorn the walls in the foyer and stainless steel creates a modern, sleek feel throughout. There are classrooms in the facility, and several student-aged members were in the audience. One pair sat next to us, proclaiming that their seats were originally intended for legendary percussionist Mickey Hart. It hit me: I almost sat next to Mickey Hart at the most amazing drum performance of my life. (That may have been too much for this drummer to handle.)
With intermission over, Hussain sat on the carpeted riser at his tabla. Eric Harland soon stepped in and sat at a drum set, beginning to sing a low drone into a mic as Hussain sang a raga and played along with his drums. Harland joined in by scraping the tip of his drumsticks along the face of his cymbals, creating an eerie feedback-type noise. This soundscape slowly built until Harland started playing with a bop feel, combining his ride cymbal and kick drum into one powerful, lightning fast force. Hussain and Harland found their groove, and it escalated quickly into calculated cacophony in 7/8 time.
The whole time, since his ominous cymbal scraping, Harland had been keeping a steady pulse on what might be a cowbell or midi trigger with his left foot. Soon, his left foot was the only thing keeping the whole train from derailing. How many right-handed people can even kick a soccer ball with their left foot? The subtlety likely went unnoticed by many. It was soft enough for him to have stopped at any moment and not be missed, but it remained the entire time as if to say, Yeah, we know what we’re doing. We know where we’re going. Don’t worry.
After picking my jaw up from the floor and mopping up the drool, I briefly wondered if it could get any better. But we had yet to see Steve Smith. The ex-Journey drummer is a master of several styles, but his bread and butter is jazz-rock fusion. His was the first real drum set groove of the night, laying snare on the backbeat and kick on the one. He and Hussain traded off a bit and Smith sang drum syllables to Hussain, who responded in the same language. The two had a conversation in drum language while playing drums at virtuosic levels. When I saw Smith and his band Vital Information at Sonoma State a few years ago, he had a move with double bass and cymbals that floored me. It was one of those moments where everyone in the audience just looked at each other and said “Are you kidding me!?” He did it again tonight to the same reaction. It’s the patented Steve Smith jaw dropper.
Hidalgo and Harland came back in after the crescendo, along with two tabla players from the first piece of the evening. The sextet got going quickly to Smith’s fast breakbeat on a popcorn snare. It was now officially showoff time. Tabla players got their moment in the sun with playing so fast it sounded like a monsoon pouring onto a tin roof. Then came the waterfall. Rotating solos of eight bars soon turned into solos of four bars, then two, then one-measure fills until the last downbeat, prompting a supernova of applause.
The whole night was made even more magical by the transparency of the sound in the new space. The center is an acoustic masterpiece specifically tailored to jazz; amplified sound is natural throughout the auditorium, giving the music just a little more presence. The vocals in the first piece were too prominent, but since the rest of the evening featured almost no human voice, it was soon forgiven.
By the end of the evening, two full drum kits, three sets of tabla and a full set of congas were blasting at full intensity, and the sound was still intelligible and managed. Nothing sounded out of place of out of balance. The architects and sound engineers involved with the center have paid tribute to the artists in the best way they can—by going completely unnoticed.
Hussain plays shows each night through Sunday at SFJAZZ, but tickets are already sold out. Some seats may open up the day of the show, so it might not be a bad idea to call the box office at 866.920.5299.