Big Time for a Little Jazz

In a town that once had difficulty sustaining any sort of jazz presence at all in the early 1990s, last Monday night was an embarrassment of riches.

Not only was the legendary pianist Dave Brubeck making his by-now annual pilgrimage to the stage at the Lobero Theatre, but SOhO – the eclectic club that has dedicated Monday nights each week to jazz for a while – hosted its annual visitor, the Chris Walden Big Band, featuring vocalist Tierney Sutton.

The potential for divided loyalties was staggering, given the fact that it would have been almost sacrilegious to miss either one – the octogenarian keyboardist or perhaps the best female vocalist in jazz playing with the most innovative big band in the genre. Thus we found ourselves scampering back and forth between the two venues four blocks apart, missing just one Brubeck number post-intermission, and hearing almost a dozen from Walden and company.

At 87, Brubeck – whose concert kicked off what appears to be a ravishingly appealing season of Lobero Live! – no longer moves like a man possessed by the creative spirit, and the onetime master innovator famous for employing unusual time signatures mostly followed the straight and narrow this time around. But despite being slowed by time, Brubeck retains both taste and a playful spirit, which came out time and again in the eight-song set.

For the last two years, Brubeck has used his gig in Santa Barbara as a California tune-up for the Monterey Jazz Festival three weeks later, a date that takes on added importance due to its proximity to the Carmel home of Clint Eastwood, the director who is helming a documentary film about the pianist and his quartet.

The forthcoming five-camera shoot was on Brubeck’s mind Monday evening, a fact he readily admitted during one of his frequent addresses to the audience, this one following “All the Things You Are.”

“We’ve never played that together before,” he said. “But we took a chance because you’re such a friendly audience we know you understand: We have to rehearse!”

It sure didn’t sound like they were fumbling on any of the numbers, though, as the improvisations flowed crisply. The self-professed “old cats” finished up the evening with the obligatory “Take Five” – infused by a rousing drum solo – and then Brubeck told the crowd, “Maybe we’ll be back,” which is a sure thing, according to the Lobero folks, barring any health problems.

Meanwhile, over at SOhO, Walden – perhaps the most accomplished arranger for big bands in a generation – offered his fascinating take on a couple of Disney classics – “It’s a Small, Small World” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” – turning each inside out and breaking them down in order to reassemble the songs according to his ear. It’s a trick that recalls what his featured vocalist Sutton does with her own band (the connection is their shared drummer, the terrific, tasteful timekeeper Ray Brinker).

Walden’s own compositions are even more engaging. “This Is Not For You” combined the edgy, power-smitten attack of Weather Report with the crispness and lilting swing of Glenn Miller tunes, while his “Film Noir Suite No. 1” went even further into panoramic music making.

Pity they both had to be here on the same night. But the good news is, we can expect both of them back again.

Wilco at the Bowl

Given the acoustic nature of Wilco’s new album “Sky Blue Sky,” one might have expected Sunday night’s concert at the Bowl – on a gorgeous night just 24 hours prior to the full moon – to be a laid-back mellow evening. But not with relatively new lead guitarist Nels Cline in the house. The ax-man scrapped, plunked, screeched and screamed his way over and through a great number of the generous 25-song set, offering sonic textures to complement Wilco chief Jeff Tweedy’s raspy vocals and cut-to-the-bone roots-based emotional pleadings. The band – already one of the finest in the land – has never seemed more complete than it does right now, and the show will stay in the memory for a long, long while.