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.
Last night, the City of San Francisco belonged to Adam Theis.
At 8:06pm, the lobby of the Palace of Fine Arts was full, over a hundred people, with two lines for will call and another line for ticket purchases. Inside the theatre, all seats were occupied; standing-room overflow lined the aisles. Onstage, the orchestra had already begun playing, trying to fit as much music as possible into the tiny time frame allowed.
At the front was the man of the hour, Adam Theis, conducting this impossibly huge ensemble after a year of nonstop writing. San Francisco’s own Theis—of the Jazz Mafia, the Realistic Orchestra, the Shotgun Wedding Quintet and an upbringing in Santa Rosa—stood casually in sneakers and a hooded sweatshirt, overseeing the premiere of his magnum opus and life’s work thus far.
This is no local-boy-makes-good story. After the incredible composition unveiled last night, it’s time to stop with the hometown platitudes and officially herald Adam Theis as a major talent.
Brass, Bows & Beats is a work on par with Miles Davis & Gil Evans’ Live at Carnegie Hall or Charles Mingus’ Epitaph—visionary in scope, staggering in depth. Rarely have I heard live music of greater variety without the variety itself taking center stage. If there is a dominant theme to the work, it is that we are all one, and it makes its case with dizzying arrangements, evocative poetry and an impossible-to-resist urge to get down.
In the great jazz tradition, Adam Theis has spent ten years playing virtually nonstop in San Francisco’s small nightclubs. Sometimes he’ll play a whole set of loose, free-form funk songs. Sometimes he’ll stick to strictly jazz. Lately he’s been showcasing special sets of instrumentals sampled by De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, bringing attention back to the sources of classic hip-hop songs. Beats, Bows and Brass combines all of this activity with cerebral aplomb and an unerring personality that widely circumvents the rudimentary hokum of early jazz/hip-hop hybrids like Jazzmatazz or Hand on the Torch.
Theis conducted his 48-piece orchestra, played trombone and bass, spoke humbly between segments and animatedly tossed his charts to the stage floor throughout the performance. He allowed his players, and particularly his vocalists, to take the limelight. He stepped aside when violinists Anthony Blea and Mads Tolling went head-to-head in the dual jazz improvisation “Blea vs. Tolling”; when rappers Lyrics Born, Aima, Dublin, Seneca and Karyn Paige evoked the Mission District in “Community 2.0”; and when DJ Aspect McCarthy scratched along to beatbox breakdowns while the brass section swelled and ebbed dramatically.
On the surface, Brass, Bows & Beats is akin to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in that it brings a genre associated with black music into the symphonic realm. Theis does the same for hip-hop with Brass, Bows and Beats, but a closer cousin is Gordon Jenkins’ 1949 vignette Manhattan Tower, in which a great city is realized through a work of music that feels as alive as the city itself. Without a doubt, Brass, Bows & Beats is the sound of San Francisco in 2009; intelligent, soulful and diverse.
Once the official symphony was over, a second, looser set opened with an Astor Piazzolla song featuring Colin Hogan on the accordion. Joe Bagale brought the house down with his soul cry “Love Song,” and Jon Monahan conducted Eric Garland’s “Arc Line.” Those awaiting a party-rocking amalgam—in line with the Jazz Mafia’s many nights at Bruno’s—were rewarded near the end when the intensity level was raised markedly by Lyrics Born, who had been a small accessory to the first set.
Working the front of the stage, Lyrics Born brought the entire Palace of Fine Arts to its feet with full-orchestra versions of his own album tracks. A slow, sultry “Over You” and the hands-in-the-air “Hott 2 Deff” balanced the serious nature of the first set; the veteran Bay Area rapper then joined a full-frontal freestyle by all six vocalists for a television crime drama “Streets of San Francisco / Theme from S.W.A.T.” medley, arranged by Jeanne Geiger, that thrillingly increased in tempo toward the euphoric finish of a great night.
Attention, rest of the world outside the Bay Area! Adam Theis and the Jazz Mafia: Recognize!