Alto saxophone master Christopher Hollyday made a relatively rare San Diego appearance on Dec. 23, playing to a full house on a rain-swept night at the new Dizzy’s location on Morena Boulevard, leading a red-hot quartet featuring pianist Joshua White, bassist Rob Thorsen and drummer Duncan Moore.
Thorsen began the modal Freddie Hubbard tune “The Core,” with a flamenco strum as White assumed the McCoy Tyner template with churning fourths and Hollyday went straight into a blistering essay layered over the rhythmic counter-attack of Moore. White’s contribution focused on teasing a string of nagging repetitions into a sort of delirium before resolving into a glorious release.
Chick Corea’s “Bud Powell,” was next, exploding off the page with note-filled alacrity, and offering Hollyday a chance to swell the air with long strands of bop allusions and blues phraseology. A powerhouse groove caused players to sway to and fro, as if they were all tied to invisible dance partners -- especially on Thorsen’s muscular solo, which swung mightily.
A ballad was now in order, and Hollyday signaled this change in mood by calling the James Williams tune “A Touching Affair.” Smoky and soulful, Hollyday made the most of a yearning vibrato and lemon-honey delivery, while White refracted the diatonic intentions with total commitment -- spinning layers of pure melodic invention pulling against a current of darker dissonance.
Tyner’s “Peresina” followed, introduced by White’s propulsive chording and embellished by the leader’s command of scalar material. But the tune itself belonged to Moore, who burst out of the gates with brilliantly controlled explosions -- raising the bar for the subsequent string of solos from White and Thorsen.
I was sitting close enough to hear Hollyday whisper to his conspirators, “Let’s do it in Ab,” illustrating the flexibility demanded by true progenitors of the art form as they set out on “This Is Always,” an inward-gazing ballad that had the leader pulling directly on the heartstrings over the groaning whole notes of Thorsen and the whispered brushes of Moore.
All hell broke loose on the closer, “Just One of Those Things,” beginning with a punishing drum solo before Hollyday shot off to the bebop races, where he crossed the home stretch in a photo finish. White turned things around, responding to the fervor of Hollyday’s essay by building incrementally, one step at a time before veering suddenly into a mélange of splintered fragments and bruising clusters that somehow synthesized the last 40 years of the jazz piano continuum into five minutes of brilliant Newtonian fluid. Thorsen carried on in the velocity parade -- whipping a strand of inflected notes with machine gun brutality while Moore brought up the rear with ballistic ebullience.
It was an exhausting conclusion to an exhilarating evening. In the final analysis, no quarter was offered to the vanquished, yet everybody emerged victorious. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years. Follow him on Twitter @robertbushjazz. Visit The World According to Rob.