Thursday's show at the new SFJazz Center was a recession special: three bands for $25, performing in the new $64 million palace. The idea was to spotlight local big bands, something of a variety show. Nice intentions, but the programming was all over the place: High school all-stars! Old-school swing! Hip-hop jazz!
It was the start of Week 2 at the venue: four sold-out shows, through Sunday, with different Bay Area artists each night. Thursday's linchpin was the 17-piece Realistic Orchestra, led by Adam Theis, the trombonist and composer. His Mission-based Jazz Mafia organization has spawned scads of bands over the past 15 years (Realistic is just one of them), involving scores of musicians and artists -- rappers, aerial dancers, you never know what.
The "what" on Thursday began with Dublin, the MC (and Jazz Mafia regular), rapping about life on a pirate ship to big-band accompaniment. Seriously. Then Theis brought out a protégé: 14-year-old Matthew Wong, who attends San Francisco University High School, plays piano and composes. He conducted one of his own pieces -- the score to a film, Theis explained, made up of old Wong-family vacation photos. We didn't get to see the photos, but it was a nifty piece: late-'60s-ish jazz anthems filtered through a "Shaft" sensibility and groove.
This was my second trip to the 700-seat venue, which manages to evoke both nightclub and concert hall. It's sleek, but not overly fancy -- comfortable. You can purchase wine or a drink and carry it into the hall; every seat has a cup holder.
And as on Jan. 23 -- opening night, when Bill Cosby hosted McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea and other storied players -- the sound quality was clear. You heard the bass, the weaving of horn lines, the details. For Theis, though, the volume should have been cranked louder. His music isn't polite. It needs liberal amplification; it should engulf, and possibly pulverize, listeners.
The Realistic Orchestra (co-led by drummer Eric Garland) is freewheeling, nicely rough at the edges. The rest of its set had all sorts of influences: balladry, fusion, the chattering stutter-funk of Lenny Pickett. There was an Astor Piazzolla piece -- "Fugata," arranged by pianist Colin Hogan, who played accordion here. One tune included a sober brass chorale, and there were numerous '70s moments: something like saxophonist Gary Bartz's old Ntu Troop, expanded to 17 pieces; bluesy, riffing and reiterative.
It ended with Dublin:
Chuck Norris is my daddy/
Riding a Caddy/
Burning a fatty on Mission.
Theis deserves a whole week at the SFJazz Center to show off his various Jazz Mafia bands, and to give the hall a multimedia workout. Maybe he could even bring along those aerial dancers. (Keep an eye on his monthly music-and-arts salon in the Mission: www.TreatSocialClub.com).
Before Realistic, another Bay Area institution held the stage: the Montclair Women's Big Band with its old-school swing. Thursday, it didn't set the air molecules shaking, but there were some potent moments.
Thelonious Monk's "Straight No Chaser" featured a terrific tumbling solo by alto saxophonist Kasey Knudsen. On Horace Silver's "The Jody Grind," tenor saxophonist Jean Fineberg channeled Stanley Turrentine. Mercy! (Fineberg also made a pitch: Several of the band's members are on the faculty for jazz and blues camps for women, March 25-29, and girls, Aug. 5-9, at the JazzSchool in Berkeley. Information: http://jazzschool.org.)
Trumpeter Ellen Seeling, the band's founder, also made a peace offering: After a "running battle" with SFJazz over the past 10-12 years, she said, she is "feeling pretty good" about the gender diversity among performers coming to the new venue during its first season.
The night began with a set by the SFJazz High School All-Stars, conducted by veteran educator Paul Contos; the group soon will head to the Fifth Annual Charles Mingus High School Competition and Festival in New York. The talented ensemble played Monk's "Epistrophy" and "Bemsha Swing" and Mingus's "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love" And guess who was on piano?
Contos looked at him and said, "You're still 14?"
Next shows with tickets still available: Bassist Dave Holland
When/what: Feb. 7, Holland solo; Feb. 8, Holland duets with pianist Kenny Barron; Feb. 9 Holland's Quintet; Feb. 10, Holland's Prism Quartet. Shows at 7:30 p.m.
Where: 201 Franklin St. (at Fell Street), San Francisco
Tickets: $20-$70 (depending on show), 866-920-5299, www.sfjazz.org