Freddy Rodriguez Sr. & the Jazz Connection at El Chapultepec

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Freddy Rodriguez Sr. and the Jazz Connection
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
El Chapultepec

Better than: Celebrating Thanksgiving Eve with critical in-laws.

Atmosphere makes a difference.

I've attended countless shows where the skill and power of a performer has failed to make up for obnoxious concertgoers, cramped quarters, poor lighting schemes or bad sound. Fortunately, the impressive skills of Freddie Rodriguez and his accompanying ensemble found a perfect complement Wednesday night in the intimate spaces, the warm acoustics and the respectful clientele of El Chapultepec.

I'm betting that this chemistry between performer and venue is one of the reason the band's been making the jazz bar on Market Street its home base since 1980, when El Chapultepec was one of the sole clubs in a neighborhood composed largely of warehouses and drug dealers.

It was a cohesion on prime display during the band's regular Wednesday set. Even on the eve of Thanksgiving, and even as lead tenor saxophonist Rodriguez was recovering from the effects of a cold, the band drew a regularly revolving and enthusiastic crowd with their performance full of expertly executed standards and virtuosic solos.

The band opened their first set with a cover of Horace Silver's "Silver Serenade," a tune that benefited from Rodriguez's pensive and purposeful solo runs, melodies that became progressively denser and more frenetic as the song progressed.

"Serenade" also featured an impressive round of solos from the rest of the quartet. Pianist Geoff Cleveland stuck to airy melodies in the upper register of the keyboard in his solo, runs that retained a sensitivity and a depth despite their speed. Bassist Mark Diamond's frenzied solo spanned the entire length of the fretboard, alternating between low drones and novel sounds from the instrument's higher registers. Diamond coaxed impossibly high-pitched notes from the thick strings, even as he rung occasional notes from the low E string as a back up.

Drummer Tony Black offered solos in rhythmic flurries, explosions of percussion that sped from the snare drum to the ride cymbal and back again. As the performance progressed, Black would provide meditative accompaniment for some of Rodriguez's longer, more extended solo flights.

The band's melding of virtuosic skill only increased as their set continued. On covers of classics like Thelonious Monk's "In Walked Bud" and Dexter Gordon's "Cheese Cake," the band explored the crooks and crannies of the melodies and hinted at melodies from other standards. On "Bud," for example, Rodriguez's building solo formed melodic snippets from Richard Rodgers' and Lorenz Hart's standard "Blue Skies." The quartet even tackled the theme song from "Spider Man," playing it with an insistent cadence and immediate solos.

The club's cozy setting and involved patrons helped to deepen the band's rich menu of solos and standards. The performance boasted atmospherics that made it both comfortable and memorable. An aged man sitting at the end of the bar shouted encouragement during selected solos. Legendary New Orleans pianist Henry Butler listened pensively from the audience. Trumpet player Dave Boswell contributed to a set.

The result was a perfect mix of carefully orchestrated musicianship and impromptu audience involvement. It was also a perfect escape from the stress of last-minute Thanksgiving meal preparation, harried trips to pick up relatives at the airport and fast-paced holiday chaos.
On that note, I'm planning to stop in at the club on Christmas Eve.

Personal bias: I'm a sucker for Dexter Gordon, so the band's cover of "Cheese Cake" was an especially enjoyable moment.
Random detail: Keyboardist Freddy Rodriguez Jr. joins his father for the saxophonist's Thursday night sets.
By the way: If you want to secure the best vantage point on Wednesday and Thursday nights, it's best to arrive before 9 p.m. While the club didn't reach capacity during the performance, the bar's limited booths were constantly filled.

-- A.H. Goldstein

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