If you love the music we call jazz, there is no better place to be on a Friday night than downtown at the Westgate Hotel, where, in the small and acoustically stunning Plaza Bar, trumpet virtuoso Gilbert Castellanos holds court every week with a different pianist and bass player.
The room seats about 40 people, so it’s prudent to arrive early. The sound is gorgeous, and most of the bassists are able to perform sans amplifier and still be heard.
On Nov. 15, Castellanos, who recently took home the 2013 San Diego Music Award for Best Artist (as well as the statuettes for Best Jazz Artist and Best Jazz Album, Federal Jazz Project), brought the phenomenal pianist Joshua White and L.A. bass virtuoso Hamilton Price in for a riveting performance that perfectly illustrated what kind of magic can be made when improvising masters converse on a shared theme.
The trumpeter began by hinting at the form of “Autumn Leaves,” feeding off the churning propulsion of White’s chordal support, using repeated nuggets and velocity as color before tossing back to the pianist, whose whiplash skeins of pure swing were laced with precise doses of dissonance. Everyone stopped as Price, navigating the harmonic contours with a thick, woody assault, laid down a perfect balance of alacrity and ripe timbre.
The blues is the lingua franca for jazz musicians, and on Monk’s "Green Chimneys," it served as a primal reference that incorporated White’s nervous fragments, Castellanos’ plunger-mute alchemy and the raw pulse of Price’s walking into a unified whole. The intimacy of the room allows the trumpeter to exploit the full range of his remarkable tone sculpture, where phrases can whisper or growl or rocket into the ether. Every piano solo from White sings with lyrical exuberance and rhythmic audacity, and the force of his invention is a vortex that transformed the musicians onstage -- and the entire room -- into a dimension that hadn’t existed before.
Castellanos and Price took a stroll as White dissected "Sweet & Lovely" with bursts of spastic energy that somehow coalesced into snippets of a recognizable theme. The trumpeter watched with raised eyebrows as White conjured a monstrous, yet never obtuse, density, illuminating the core idea with laser focus.
Bringing in different world-class players each week, without rehearsal (and often without charts) enables Castellanos and his comrades the opportunity to communicate at the highest level -- without a net -- the interior content of melded individual expression.
Robert Bush Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.