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Top Ten San Diego Jazz Concerts in 2017

by Robert BushDecember 2017

Zakir Hussain’s Crosscurrents. Photo: RNH Events.

Jazz is an inherently “live” medium. Despite the plethora of wonderful recordings that document its evolution, nothing compares to seeing jazz musicians creating in the moment, right before your eyes and ears. That’s where the magic happens. This is my recollection of the finest concerts of the past year. As a caveat, I must admit that I missed a few events that everyone raved about, like the Chucho Valdez performance for Jazz at the Jacobs or Chris Potter’s show at the Athenaeum. But the following represent the best shows I witnessed in 2017.

1. Zakir Hussain’s Crosscurrents. (Balboa Theatre, October 29)
The La Jolla Music Society scored big with this one, a riveting show that lasted almost three hours and featured iconic bassist Dave Holland, reed man Chris Potter, and Bollywood superstar Shankar Mahadevan on vocals, who earned a rousing ovation before he sang a single note. This wonderful collusion of jazz improvisation and the musical traditions of northern and southern India featured a brilliant sound mix that allowed each instrument to be experienced with maximum clarity. Hussain, who broke into the global consciousness in 1975 with John McLaughlin’s Shakti, is one of the finest
tabla players the world has ever known.

2. Ralph Towner (Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, March 2)
Solo guitar can be a dicey proposition, but the 77-year old Towner, coming to town in support of his stunning ECM album My Foolish Heart, completely rocked the house at the acoustically pristine music library. Every moment was golden, and this one continues to linger in the ear. Jazz program coordinator Dan Atkinson is another unsung hero behind the scenes.

3. Mark Dresser Quintet (Jazz Live, Saville Theatre, January 10)
Featuring a streamlined version of Dresser’s septet, including Michael Dessen on trombone, Joshua White on piano, Nicole Mitchell on flute, and Kjell Nordeson on drums, Dresser’s challenging music raised the roof at the Saville. Kudos to the management of Jazz 88 for bringing cutting-edge improvisers into this excellent showcase.

4. Joshua White Trio (Bayside Summer Nights, August 24)
This was a prime example of an instance where the opening act blew the headliner (John Beasley’s Monk-estra) away. No disrespect to Beasly, but White is ready to take the jazz world by storm. Dean Hulett on bass and Dan Schnelle on drums aided White immensely in stealing the show. Honorable mention goes to White’s numerous appearances at Dizzy’s in Pacific Beach, thanks to the foresight of owner Chuck Perrin, another San Diego treasure.

5. Michael Dessen Trio Plus (Fresh Sound @ Bread & Salt, October 27)
The wildly inventive trombone virtuoso Dessen brought his New York City trio, featuring bassist Chris Tordini and drummer Dan Weiss, augmented by pianist Joshua White and flutist Nicole Mitchell to tackle a suite of brand-new music. It was stunning, in every way. Bonnie Wright continues to inspire with superb music that defies easy categorization.

6. Vinny Golia Quintet (Jazz Live, Saville Theatre, September 12)
Multi-wind virtuoso Golia doesn’t do San Diego often enough, but when he does it’s always special. Fronting a quintet comprised of former students from Cal Arts, including the volcanic Gavin Templeton on reeds, Cathlene Pineda on piano, Miller Wrenn on bass, and Clint Dodson on drums, Golia held flashcards for visual cues and generally tore things up.

7. Regina Carter Quartet (Conrad Prebys Music Center, UCSD, August 19)
The La Jolla Music Society brought the versatile violinist into town, leading a sharp ensemble featuring Marvin Sewell on guitar, Chris Lightcap on bass, and Alvester Garnett on drums. Carter stretched out and dug in with a wonderfully acoustic sound. Before the concert, she was presented with a “Best Violin 2017” award from the Jazz Journalists Association.

8. Chris Speed & Endangered Blood (Fresh Sound @ Bread & Salt, March 15)
Bonnie Wright’s Fresh Sound series is celebrating its 20th year, and Speed’s group, with Oscar Noriega on reeds, Jim Black on drums, and Trevor Dunn on bass, delivered an evening of first-class music on the cutting edge. This is the kind of music that we rarely get the chance to experience in San Diego.

9. Gilbert Castellanos Trio (Westgate Hotel, every Friday)
It was impossible to single out any one performance this year, but every Friday night at the Westgate is an almost spiritual experience. The room is small, the acoustics are rich and detailed, and the musicianship is unequaled. Gilbert is a sonic wizard who can say more with one note than others can with a hundred.

10. Linda May Han Oh Quartet (Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, June 15)
Linda Oh has emerged as a go-to bassist in New York, and following high-profile gigs with Joe Lovano and Pat Metheny, it was wonderful to take in her debut San Diego performance as a leader at the helm of a very tight ensemble, showcasing Ben Wendel on saxophone, Matt Stevens on guitar, and Eric Doob on drums. At times as a side person, Oh’s sound has gotten buried in the mix, but she was definitely out-front-and-center on this night.

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