SFJazz founder Randall Kline got this crazy idea a few years ago: that his organization needed its own home, and that it should have the energy of a great little jazz club along with the comforts and sound quality of a fine concert hall. In the wake of Wednesday's blowout opening concert at the SFJazz Center, Kline's wish would seem to have been granted.
A sleek amphitheater that pulls the audience into the musical action, the new 700-seat venue passes the acoustical litmus test. I was up in the balcony -- front row, left -- and the sound quality was almost unwaveringly warm and clear; the patter of fingertips on conga drums, the inner lines of fine-spun guitar solos. It was all in your ears -- along with the jokes of emcee Bill Cosby, a lifelong jazz fan and a pretty good drummer, who got to play cowbell on a Tito Puente tune and then introduced one legend after another: pianists McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, on and on.
Beginning with the expensive Scotch and freshly shucked oysters at the pre-concert party, this was a pull-out-the-stops christening for the $64 million venue, which sits down the block from Davies Symphony Hall and War Memorial Opera House. Musically over-stuffed -- like an old Jazz at the Philharmonic revue -- it didn't totally ignite; no band was given enough time to go deep and do anything really stupendous. But there was so much breadth to the lineups: cross-generationally, stylistically. A lot
And even with all the world-renowned stars, this opening night had a hometown feel. Born just a few blocks away in 1939, Mary Stallings -- "the world's greatest jazz singer," Kline called her -- sang Peggy Lee's "I Love Being Here With You" with the SFJazz High School All-Stars. Old-school swing, nice and bluesy, it was followed by the modernist retro-isms of pianist Jason Moran (one of SFJazz's five resident artistic directors) and drummer Eric Harland. The duo squeezed a Fats Waller tune ("Yacht Club Swing") through the wringer; out the other side came stride piano, Bud Powell-ish "Un Poco Loco"-isms; Afro-jazz vamps and hip-hop.
"You forgot the tune!" shouted Cosby.
Then he introduced two other duet partners: guitarist Bill Frisell and Corea, who had never before played together. "Neither of us knows what we're doing," the pianist joked. Whatever. They offered "It Could Happen to You," which was meditative and beautiful -- and flowed logically into the Bill Evans space of "Alice in Wonderland," which Corea played with young bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Jeff Ballard. Springy bass rhythms. Splish-splash of cymbals. Really nice.
But the next band took it up several notches: a quintet with tenor saxophonists Joe Lovano and Joshua Redman, their lines intertwining like coiled pythons on "Blackwell's Message."
After intermission -- and more free drinks in the lobbies (this place has three bars and cup holders next to every seat) -- the SFJazz Collective played alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón's "Mastermind." The organization's all-star octet sounded warm and sleek as the hall, though the piece had a few too many moving parts. I preferred the outright romance of Irving Berlin's "Remember," played by a quartet with Redman and the great pianist Eric Reed, whose sound spells the influences
Oh, McCoy: "Mr. Tyner sometimes sounds as if he has 12 fingers," said Cosby, his old friend from Philadelphia. The truth is, Tyner at age 74 is no longer so consistently domineering. Yet to see him palm those talking-spirit bell chords (patented during his years with John Coltrane's quartet) still is a wonder of American music. To hear him lock in with friend Bobby Hutcherson (who celebrates his 72nd birthday Sunday at this same venue) was sweet, too. Though it was Redman here, on Tyner's "Blues on the Corner," who took his measure, then spun the most convincing horn solo of the night.
What else? All five resident artistic directors were on hand: not only Moran, but Frisell, Zenón, percussionist John Santos (who, like Stallings, grew up a few blocks from where the hall stands) and violinist Regina Carter. Corea played his iconic "Spain" with the Collective, which will focus this season on the pianist's tunes. And the night ended with Billie Holiday. That's right. An old Victrola record player was wheeled onstage, and the audience -- which included architect Mark Cavagnero and acoustician Sam Berkow -- quietly listened as Lady Day sang "I'll Be Seeing You."
I expect to be seeing a lot more of this hall; I want to make sure the sound is as good as it seems. For now, Kline must be over the moon, thinking about "what we did," as he said to the audience. After 30 years of roaming San Francisco, from rented space to rented space, his ambitious organization has built itself a home.
SFJazz Center Opening Events
Through Sunday: McCoy Tyner, Joshua Redman and others (Thursday and Sunday, sold out)
Next week: Realistic Orchestra and Montclair Women's Big Band (Jan. 31); Dan Hicks, Kim Nalley and Paula West (Feb. 1, sold out); Rebeca Mauleón and Afro Kuban VNote Ensemble (Feb. 2); Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers (Feb. 3)
Where: 201 Franklin St. (at Fell), San Francisco
Tickets: This week, $50-$150; next week, $25; 1-866-920-5299, www.sfjazz.org