If you love jazz and have yet to make it down to catch Gilbert Castellanos and his revolving cast of players at the Westgate Hotel on Friday nights – do yourself a favor and fix that.
The Plaza Bar at the Westgate is small (seats about 40) and acoustically superior, and the music represents jazz at its improvising finest. At a recent show, the intrepid trumpeter was joined by pianist Joshua White and bassist Rob Thorsen; the resulting music was powerful enough to elicit involuntary moans yet intimate enough to turn around and stare burning holes into a few stray talkers who mistakenly assumed their conversations were equally beautiful.
Opening with the seldom-heard standard "I'll Take Romance," the trio's swing was buoyant enough to float a cruise ship on, and one was instantly inspired by the sound of Castellanos making choices in his improvising. Likewise, hearing White build ebullient ideas on this invisible, precise, rhythmic grid is the best possible antidote to the poisonous lethargy of hot summer nights. Bringing up the rear, the unamplified Thorsen plucked deep resonant tones as thick and woody as old-growth forest.
The fanfare of Freddie Hubbard's "The Intrepid Fox" opened up into a furious walk indicative of a truly wicked tempo, and it was amazing to witness the care that the trumpeter applies to his improvised lines -- even at extreme velocity, Castellanos can burnish and shape phrases as if he had all the time in the world -- managing, somehow, to squeeze quotes from "Green Chimneys," and "Invitation" into an already dizzying array of gestures.
On "Five Will Get You Ten," White snatched the baton following a brilliant trumpet solo and extrapolated one idea through a kaleidoscope of treatments -- expanding one moment and contracting the next (within seconds, they were playing an entirely different tune) – and credit must be given to Thorsen for strapping in tight for the adventure.
Castellanos picked up the flugelhorn for a cheek-to-cheek reading of "Blue Moon" that swirled warm arabesques around the moaning whole notes of Thorsen, who stepped into the spotlight with upper-register stabs and slurs and various terms of endearment. In a truly magical moment, White responded with short, clipped phrases that he suddenly stirred into a rhapsodic ecstasy that dropped jaws throughout the greater downtown area. Castellanos returned, seizing upon the opportunity, and steered the piece back into ballad territory, massaging each motif with blues caresses and wringing every drop of romance from the form.
Thorsen and White then took the stage as a duo, ripping into a Thelonious Monk tune, "Epistrophy," if I'm not mistaken, but it really didn’t matter: This was a night for risk-taking, and whatever the source material began as was soon subverted into the vagaries of the moment. Thus jagged fragments morphed into one-note telegraphy and joyous excursions into virgin rhythmic and harmonic vistas.
White tied Turkish trance music into Chopin ornaments without even trying, and Thorsen answered with a heady mix of throbbing, strummed activity dotted with dripping double-stops. And that was just the first set!
Castellanos returns to the Westgate on Friday, Sept. 12, with guitarist Steve Cotter and bassist Katie Thiroux, who are both from Los Angeles. Arrive early for a prime seat, unless you’re a talker, then please head someplace else.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.