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Review: SFJAZZ Center makes a splash on opening night

January 24, 2013|By Chris Barton
  • The $63-million SFJAZZ Center hosted its first performance Wednesday night.
The $63-million SFJAZZ Center hosted its first performance Wednesday… (Eric Risberg / Associated…)

SAN FRANCISCO -- Los Angeles, did you hear that?

Given the laws of physics and the roughly 400-odd miles of distance, it's unlikely this week's opening of the $63-million SFJAZZ Center could be heard on the opposite end of the state (apart from its live video stream on NPR's website). But after opening its doors to the public on Monday, the center rumbled to life Wednesday with an all-star concert that featured practically a who's who of the music -- Chick Corea, Jason Moran, Esperanza Spalding, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Hutcherson and even Bill Cosby, who it's tempting to say was acting on loan from our city given his recently finished run as host of the Playboy Jazz Festival.

The effect, both in the sound and the building designed to hold it, seemed to reverberate not just to our half of California -- where the Jazz Bakery's plans for a new Culver City home in some respects echo what SFJAZZ has in place -- but across the country as a vibrant new way of experiencing the music has begun to be explored.

First impressions can always be deceptive, of course (what jazz venue wouldn't pack a house with a lineup like that?), but the overwhelming afterglow from the evening is hope, and not just for the future of the music but for the intoxicating possibility of something similar happening in L.A. as well.

Before a note was played, the center played host to a red carpet reception that wouldn't have looked out of place at the various awards galas that pepper our city this time of year. There was even an SFJAZZ-branded photo backdrop against which the night's guests (all VIPs or concert patrons who paid $500 each for a limited number of tickets) could pose. The crowd gathered around small plates from a number of local restaurants was a stylish, sharply dressed mix of young and old, and some of the faces seemed familiar from the covers of Fast Company and Wired, or looked as if they could be.

Local dignitaries such as Mayor Edwin Lee and Willie Brown rubbed elbows with locals honoring the night's "black tie optional" dress code, mixed with the geographically appropriate outlier such as a velvet suit or jauntily angled fez. Open bars pouring craft beer, wine and bourbon cocktails dotted the center and its neighboring tent, which allowed the spillover of revelers to appreciate a young band that at times stepped off the stage to charge through giddy, New Orleans-styled takes on standards such as "All of Me."

Seeing the center's completed design in action was something to behold as well. The floor-to-ceiling glass on the first floor blends the room with bustling Franklin Street outside so seamlessly that it's almost disorienting, yet the room never feels crowded by the city, apart from the occasional passing siren. Outside, black-and-white photos of legends such as Art Blakey and Miles Davis peer into the building from windows across the street. Inside, long steel rods anchor the staircase to the performance space above and golden flowers poke from of the ceiling, giving the room a lush, naturalistic flourish amid its modern mix of glass, metal and brushed concrete.

As the concert began, there was a feeling that this indeed may approximate what jazz looks like in 2013. The almost hexagonal-shaped hall, fleshed out to 700 seats, feels intimate but oddly spacious as rows of bar seats ring the upper balconies around and behind the stage. With its mix of horizontal and vertical acoustic slats along the walls, the room unconsciously echoes the site's original life as an auto repair shop with the crisp, spartan aesthetic of a workspace. It's not Disney Hall, but it doesn't want to be, either.

And the work done on the night was of a master class level. After Cosby opened the show joining Pete Escovedo and others for a swiveling take on Tito Puente's "Ti Mon Bo," pianist Moran -- who will return to the venue in May to improvise with skateboarders -- teamed with drummer Eric Harland for a lively, inside-out acceleration through the blues. The free-flowing piece began by recalling Jaki Byard and rumbled toward the outer limits atop Harland's driving pace yet never lost sight of its core. "You had me worried for a while, I thought you had forgotten the song," a sweatshirt-clad Cosby teased when the duet finished. "I was so glad he was with you!"

In another pairing, piano great Corea joined guitarist Bill Frisell for what was said to be the first time. The two improvised around a central melody in a graceful sort of dance with Corea roaming up and down his keyboard as Frisell, ever the country gentleman in a suit and clean-toned Telecaster, mirrored his every step. Corea was next joined by drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Spalding for what Corea introduced as a tribute to Bill Evans' "Alice in Wonderland."

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