This evening at the Hotel Rex, San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented their final Salon concert for the 2013–2014 season. The series went out in a burst of energy with a lively performance of straight-ahead jazz by the Adam Shulman Trio with Shulman on piano and rhythm support from John Wiitala on bass and Smith Dobson on drums. The program consisted of an engaging interleaving of bebop classics with Tin Pan Alley standards from both the Broadway and popular song repertoires.
I should begin with a personal disclaimer. Any combo that leads with Tadd Dameron is going to have my positively-disposed attention from the very first note. The selection was “Our Delight,” from Dameron’s first recording session with Blue Note on September 26, 1947, with a front line consisting of Fats Navarro on trumpet, Ernie Henry on alto saxophone, and Charlie Rouse on tenor. (Rhythm was provided by Nelson Boyd on bass and Shadow Wilson.) The melody line starts off a bit more lyrically than one expects from bebop but is quickly taken over by off-beat rhythms and full-handed chords on the piano. As performed by Shulman’s trio, the piano carried both the tune and an elaborate set of improvisations shared with equally imaginative inventions coming from Wiitala’s bass.
The other bebop composer on the program was Thelonious Monk, who was given two selections, “Bye-Ya” and “Think Of One.” Here, again, eccentric rhythms provided much of the life of the music and offered more opportunities for Dobson to take off on his drum work. In this case it is important to note that these were decidedly original takes on Monk classics. Shulman could find his own path through the tunes without worrying about trying to channel Monk’s own style, while Dobson brought out his own original technique without ever suggesting that this music had previously been Art Blakey’s “turf.”
Each of the six Tin Pan Alley standards went for a straightforward statement of the tune before launching into improvisations. In a few cases Shulman would provide an introduction that would throw out a few breadcrumbs to suggest the theme that would emerge; and, in the case of “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” unless I am mistaken, Shulman used George Gershwin’s own introduction as point of departure for his own invention. Here again, however, the strength of the performance derived from the clarity with which the thematic material was introduced and then embellished.
I think it is also important to celebrate the fine conditions of the Hotel Rex performing space. Absolutely no amplification was used, nor was it necessary. Wiitala’s bass was a fine instrument with rich sonorities to support both plucking and bowing, and it was a total delight to listen to it without the interference of electronic equipment. I also got the impression that, in the absence of amplification, each of the three musicians was better equipped to listen to the other two, making for some of the most finely balanced jazz performances I have heard for quite some time.
Those who are serious about listening to jazz need more opportunities to experience the music in spaces like this one.