Friday, June 2, 2017

Lunchtime Jazz by the Minna Street Tunnel Deserves a Better Audience

As I write this, the final Jazz Feast concert of the season, presented by Intersection for the Arts, should still be going strong. Set up near the west end of the Minna Street Tunnel, which runs under the San Francisco Chronicle building, the setting is first-rate for picking up lunch from an Off the Grid truck and then listening to good jazz while eating. Today’s performer is vibraphonist Dillon Vado, playing in a duo with Jeff Denson on bass guitar providing rhythm.

Vado’s first set coupled two standards with what was probably an original. (No selections were announced; so I have no idea if that last piece was Vado’s own or what it’s title, if any, was.) He began with what is probably the standard for jazz vibraphonists, Milt Jackson’s “Bags’ Groove.” If Lionel Hampton was the man who brought the vibraphone into the swing era, Jackson was the one who firmly established its place among the beboppers. Vado was clearly at home with the melodic leaps and chromatic coloration of what is probably Jackson’s best known original composition. (Indeed, it became so well known that it developed a life without the vibraphone, as anyone who has followed the career of Bud Powell knows.) Denson provided a solid bass line to support Vado’s improvisations and then took a few licks of his own that made it clear that he and Vado were on the same plane.

This was followed by an affectionate account of Sammy Fain’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Melody took top priority here. Both Vado and Denson had their own improvised paths to follow. However, any attentive listener who knew the tune could hear it in the back of his/her head while both players spun out their own imaginative takes. Nevertheless, Vado seemed to have more problems aligning his pitches to Vado’s than he had experienced with “Bags’ Groove.”

Vado’s original was a bit more problematic. One could appreciate the thematic motifs he was developing when he was taking the lead. However, when Denson was given the chance to improvise, the results sounded as if he was more than a little bit disoriented. His passages began to thin out into fragments separated by long silences until they seemed to dissolve into nothingness. Fortunately, Vado knew when to take over the lead; and, if the two of them spend more time working together on this piece, it will probably turn out to be its own bit of imaginative invention.

All that was missing for that first set was the audience. Plenty of people had come to get their lunch from Off the Grid, but I seemed to be the only one drawn to the music. Presumably, things got better for the subsequent sets; but I had a bone to pick with the Chronicle and had to move on to take care of it!

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