By now, perhaps you’ve heard about, read about or even seen the construction of the new SFJAZZ Center on the corner of Franklin and Fell Streets in San Francisco. Now complete, the 35,000-sq.-ft. building is poised to redefine live jazz in the Bay Area, as it’s funded largely by private donations and handily dispenses with the tables-and-waitresses, two-drink minimum nightclub model.
After the SFJAZZ Center was announced, entirely valid concerns rose about the “museumification” of jazz. Jazz has always thrived in nightclubs—or, for that matter, seedy bars. Charles Mingus’ famous remarks about nightclub chatter notwithstanding, a certain amount of cultural globetrotting is present when the blues is played on the stage of a $64 million performing arts center.
I’m happy to report that the SFJAZZ Center strikes just the right balance between nightclub and theater. Cup holders allow the audience to bring drinks in from the bar, but nobody drops a credit card tray in front of you while the headliner is in the middle of a particularly engrossing solo. The sound, notably, is stunning, thanks to architect Mark Cavagnero and acoustician Sam Berkow. And as a mini-amphitheater set in the semi-round, with a steeply raked floor, the hall is very intimate—capacity is 700, but feels much smaller than that. There are no seats further than 50 feet from the stage.
The lights have dimmed, the group on stage has started playing, and the place is quiet. Dave Holland begins playing a soft note on his upright bass, repeating it, while drummer Eric Harland rattles out delicate, precise, quiet snare rolls. Over on the piano, Jason Moran listens intently, forming long, resonant chords. By the time Chris Potter starts blowing, the tone has been set.
This is Dave Holland’s Overtone Quartet, a pleasant surprise to those expecting anything close to the jazz giant’s past glories. Though Holland played bass on Bitches Brew, and led the avant-garde hallmark Conference of the Birds, his Overtone Quartet is a different creature entirely—it balances on intuition and interplay, bordering on ESP.
A better cast for this particular approach would be hard to imagine. In front of a sold-out SFJAZZ audience at the Palace of Fine Arts on Friday night, Dave Holland’s Overtone Quartet exhibited a collective mastery of the art of listening to one another in jazz. In fact, the set’s first two selections, “The Outsiders” and “Walkin’ the Walk,” nearly focused more on input than output.
Then, during Harland’s tune “Treachery,” a thundering Jason Moran solo opened the floodgates. With his arms bouncing off the keys, Moran’s vivacious invention took center stage, and Potter came back in clearly energized.
From that point forward, the band clearly came together. Moran opened “Blue Blocks,” the opening track from his most recent album Ten, with a pensive melody; the full band hopped in and fluidly turned it into an earthy, swinging spiritual. “Trail of Tears,” a Holland composition, opened with a lovely bass solo, then reimagined the spirit of Henry Mancini’s “Charade” as a noir-esque spectre. Chris Potter, who ranges from lilting soprano saxophone to sheets-of-sound tenor, was a weak link on Friday night, but shined here, blowing breathy, low-register Ben Webster notes.
But it was Holland’s “Patterns” that brought the night’s highpoint. As Moran and Potter settled into a cyclical, repeating figure, with Moran on a Fender Rhodes, Harland worked his magic. First, he jumped schizophrenically from one quiet hip-hop pattern to the next, playing out of rhythm, like a needle being dropped at various places on a record. But he slowly increased the volume and pace, aiming at the sides of his drums, his hi-hat stand and his mounted tambourine. He built to such a point that his cowbell fell off its stand and onto the floor, and by the end of the passage, Harland was exploding all over the kit, the pieces of the previous eight minutes’ soloing pouring forth ferociously.
Because of moments like this, it’s no wonder the sold-out crowd moaned their disappointment when Holland announced the last song, “Ask Me Why.” Naturally, the group was cajoled out again for an encore, and the standing ovation that followed brought the close to a memorable night of jazz played by the best.
When I worked at the Last Record Store, and pored through people’s record collections on a daily basis, I routinely flipped through countless copies of LPs by Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. There’s such a glut of these albums in the Bay Area that they’re not worth much, and I’d have to break the news gently to a daily stream of baby boomers that we had little use for what to their minds was the greatest music of the century.
There’d almost always be a copy in these collections of Charles Lloyd’s Forest Flower, which seemed strange to me until I read Bill Graham’s autobiography, Bill Graham Presents. Say what you will about Bill Graham—and you’d probably be right—but Graham truly excelled at the lost art of adventurous booking; placing Neil Young and Miles Davis on the same bill, say, or booking Gabor Szabo together with Jimi Hendrix.
Charles Lloyd, who Graham loved, found himself booked at the Fillmore along such names of the day as Chuck Berry, the Butterfield Blues Band, Jeff Beck, and the Young Rascals—and eventually wound up guilty by association, in my mind, to It’s A Beautiful Day. Lloyd to me became just another face in the crowd, and in all the times I listened to Forest Flower, I had the same dismissal: it’s close, but it’s not Coltrane.
Maybe I’ve changed. Maybe Charles Lloyd has changed. One thing is certain.
I was such an idiot.
Last night at the Jackson Theater, Charles Lloyd and his quintet gave an utterly transforming performance. Aided by Jason Moran, Ruben Rogers, Eric Harland and Zakir Hussain, Lloyd led his group on a frighteningly inventive sojourn which plunged into unchartered depth and redefined the rules of collective creativity. Amidst a furious storm of talent, the centered Lloyd remarked to the crowd, “It’s better to stick with the ship—and go down with it, if necessary.”
Now 70, Lloyd still plays in the great searching vein of late-era Coltrane, although his solos aren’t an aortic torrent of bitten reeds and quickly-changing ideas but rather more subtly crafted meditations. Last night, lifting his horn and marching in place while switching between tenor sax, alto flute, and a Hungarian instrument, similar to a clarinet, called a tárogató, he brought the audience to numerous pinnacles; or, in his own words, “up there to those elixirs.”
Dazzling pianist Jason Moran was responsible for just as many highlights, with a number of propulsive and chord-driven Gershwin-esque solos that incredibly bent the rules without breaking. Zakir Hussain, sitting in on tablas, added a rich texture that never overpowered the group, and bassist Ruben Rogers held the mast of simultaneous improvisation together with a solid, steady hand.
Lloyd and the group were unbelievable—but it was really all about Eric Harland.
So open to different paths and yet so confident of his own, drummer Eric Harland stole the show as the main superprocessor of the group’s collective thought. With impeccable touch and flawless taste, Harland not only drummed—he actually deciphered the conversation on stage into the most representational and delightful stickwork this side of Jack DeJohnette.
Given the open space offered by Lloyd’s group, Harland responded keenly to every moment on the stand, playing ahead of and behind the beat; keeping time with a footpedal connected to a tambourine; switching to piano when Lloyd directed him, mid-song, and plucking the strings inside while poking hard low notes; going head-to-head with Hussain in rapid-fire rhythm duets; executing ballet-like maneuvers while utilizing every inch of the drum kit; and always, always knowing where the song was headed and when to suddenly stop.
As if to acknowledge his blessed constituents, Lloyd throughout the night placed his hands in a prayer-like position, clasped his arms across his heart, and bowed. He also gratefully thanked the attentive audience, who leapt to their feet and handed him roses at the night’s end.
“When folks come with simple living and high thinking,” Lloyd said to the people, “it always helps us out.”
Taylor Eigsti talked nervously. Wouldn’t you, in front of a 3,000-seat tent with only a few hundred people in it? His buddy, Julian Lage, looked at him, looked out into the expanse. Laughed.
Then Eigsti sat down, punching out spare, discordant notes on his piano, as if in a musical deterioration of how eerie the whole thing was. Lage responded by picking out high-pitched chirps from his guitar strings below the bridge, and eventually, Ben Williams and Eric Harland sidled in. Out of all this, a song eventually self-sculpted: Cole Porter’s “I Love You,” full of wit, verve, dramatics and a fleeting debt to Bill Evans.
Another amazing night by Taylor Eigsti and Julian Lage was underway.
For some reason, I turn into a 1960s television host when talking about Eigsti and Lage. These kids, they’re a real gas, just righteously groovy. I go ape for ‘em, you dig?
I wasn’t alone: at the finish of the group’s next tune, “Time Lines,” a thundering, raging storm of full-fingered jazz, the crowd jumped immediately to their feet. There’s something so beautiful and weird and gratifying about watching a huge tent that’s only 30-percent full going absolutely bananas for the relative unknowns, and especially when those unknowns are ruling as hard as Eigsti and Lage.
Eigsti is 23, Lage is 20, and people can talk all they want about young players only studying theory and technique and recycling old ideas in place of emotion—it’s just not true with these two. They’ve got an emotional depth that goes acres deep. I’d seen this on display as a duo before, but with Williams and Harland they were a powerhouse. Though the two did play some duets together, the bluesy “And What if I Don’t” by Herbie Hancock and the original composition “True Colors”—and offered an introspective take on the surprise indie-rock tune of the set, the Eels’ “Not Ready Yet” (!)—the two truly shined in a full-force setting.
Through every open door, both Lage and Eigsti tiptoed carefully; the majority of their solos began with sparse hesitation, a note here, a run there. Feeling out the field. Wayne Shorter’s “Deluge” saw Lage open his solo with palm-muting intermittent bent notes on the fretboard, which slowly unraveled into more loosely muted hammer-ons, which eventually unraveled into a full-speed-ahead trek both in and out of the scale, going by so fast it was impossible to completely grasp.
Harland must have been in on this plan, too, because he’d take eights like this: 1) rubbing his stick end on the bell of his ride, and 2) same thing but with some bass drum, and 3) rim shots mixed with toms building up to 4) ending by wailing away. Mas y mas.
Yes, these dizzyingly executed extended crescendos abounded, even amongst all four members. “Caravan,” the set’s closer, opened with what Lage calls “my only toy”—a delay pedal, used with flat-fifths and slides and layered rhythms—while Eigsti reached inside the grand piano and dampened the strings with one hand, pounding out fast notes with the other. I’m of the belief that there’s no lousy way to play “Caravan,” but this was on some other shit entirely; Eigsti’s marathon solo, in particular, was unleashed like he was hungry, ravenous, stabbing at the keys. It was so impactful that the crowd started cheering in the middle and didn’t let up until the triumphant end minutes later.
Eigsti’s group—this same quartet—is playing tonight at Yoshi’s in Oakland and tomorrow at Yoshi’s in San Francisco. Go, go, go. Also, Eigsti has a new album out this week called Let It Come To You, and it features incredible performances that come damn close to capturing his live show. So well, in fact, that I’ll forgive the goatee.
Also, be sure to check out Lage’s trio when they open for Charlie Haden and Joshua Redman at the Raven Theater on June 7 as part of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival.