For the last five years, some of the best shows in San Diego jazz were held upstairs in the Back Room at 98 Bottles in Little Italy. That tradition came to a sad conclusion on Saturday, Aug. 27 when Gilbert Castellanos held a tribute to the music of Thelonious Monk, featuring pianist Joshua White, bassist Dean Hulett, vocalist Leonard Patton and Los Angeles drummer Kevin Kanner.
The evening began with the live wire electricity of “5’ll Getcha 10,” as White’s relentless ostinato broke into swing time while Castellanos peeled melodic curlicues in wide arcs. Kanner is an explosive drummer who often sparred with the pianist, while Hulett held his ground with the reliability of an atomic clock. But White’s ebullience was not easily tamed, especially when he dug in to stoke the rhythmic flame with incremental repetition and bruising clusters.
Castellanos’ brassy tone was fat enough to require an extra airline seat, and on “Think of One,” it was strong enough to peel the paint off of the rafters. Patton’s elastic soulfulness reminded me of a strange merger between Bobby McFerrin, Bill Withers and a Theremin. White began with extreme minimalism before exploding like a supernova with notes ricocheting across the stage. Hulett brought up the rear with an essay of thick tones that dripped like molasses.
The music of Monk, like fellow iconic outsider Ornette Coleman, seems to grow more timeless and essential with each passing year. On “Bolivar Blues,” White extrapolated a sonic universe that orbited around a pedaled “F” natural, nurturing it, raising it right, only to witness it careening south into a house of ill repute, where Castellanos revived it with a growling plunger-mute novella that would make Henry Miller blush. Kanner furthered the blues continuum with a stunning solo that combined complete sentences with brutal exclamations.
White’s intro to “Criss Cross” was joyfully atonal, using the nagging tagline like a cat-o-nine tails of splintered rhythms before breaking free with unfettered melodic content pulling the theme apart at the seams and drawing Kanner into a spastic dance of violent choreography.
Patton’s feature came on a haunting rendition of “Round Midnight,” where the vocalist explored every possible thematic nuance like an obsessed cartographer, determined to discover the most salient course. Hulett was next, demonstrating a keen ability to strip away artifice, forcing the crowd to lean forward so as not to miss a note.
Castellanos and company finished the first set with “Evidence,” showcasing a prima facie display of whisper-to-roar dynamics, undiluted swing and bristling kinetic energy, which earned the riotous ovation that ensued.
And that was it. After five years of making things happen, the owners of 98 Bottles, Steve and Jill Mesaros (who recently became grandparents for the first time), have decided to move on and take some time to smell the roses. I’ve seen some great shows there and I will miss the place.