Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Hristo Vitchev Quartet at Joe Henderson Lab

Cover of Vitchev’s latest album (from its Amazon.com Web page)

Last night, as part of the 37th San Francisco Jazz Festival, Bulgarian-born guitarist Hristo Vitchev brought his quartet to the Joe Henderson Lab at the SFJAZZ Center. The performance was primarily a showcase for the group’s latest album, Of Light and Shadows, released by First Orbit Sounds Music at the beginning of this year. The other members of the quartet are pianist Jasnam Daya Singh, Dan Robbins on bass, and Mike Shannon on drums.

The tracks from Of Light and Shadows that Vitchev featured last night were the title track, “The Shortest Wavelength,” “At Your Side,” and “Partial Darkness.” The group also played what I think was “Old Theme” from their 2016 double album In Search Of Wonders. Each of these selections was given a sufficiently lengthy account to fill a one-hour set.

There is no questioning Vitchev’s technical skills. He is particularly good at interleaving thematic lines from multiple registers with a keen sense of polyphony. He also commands highly agile fingerwork, making the interplay of his multiple voices a particularly jaw-dropping display. Nevertheless, there was less clarity in his sonorities than such an ingenious account of counterpoint deserved, leading me to wonder whether the problem was with his technique or with inadequate management of the mixing board.

Equally dexterous, but with greater clarity, was Robbins’ bass work, performed almost entirely on a five-string upright acoustic. However, at the end of the set, for “Partial Darkness,” he switched over to a seven-string electric. In the context of Vitchev’s rich sense of embellishment, Robbins often tended to carry the theme a bit more than one expects from a bass; and there were times when it seemed as if the quartet was under joint leadership.

All of that polyphony was more than adequately matched by Shannon’s intricate and energetic polyrhythms, always reinforcing Vitchev’s rhetoric of dynamic energy without overshadowing it. Singh’s piano work, on the other hand, tended to be steadier, introspective, and, in some passages, even serene. With the music of George Frideric Handel being performed only a few blocks away, one could almost view Singh as providing the continuo for the quartet.

The release of Of Light and Shadows marked a ten-year milestone in Vitchev’s career. While he made a few jokes about the influences of ECM recordings, he decidedly has his own voice as a composer. Last night, however, the Henderson did not feel like quite the right space for either the group or the music they were making. My guess is that the problem had more to do with the technology of the space than with the group itself.

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