Deep Listening Downtown

Gilbert Castellanos pulls the listener in.

I’ve said as much before, but I’m happy to go on record to guarantee that there is no greater experience to be had in a small room -- in terms of San Diego jazz -- than the one that goes down every Friday night when trumpet master Gilbert Castellanos sets up in the Plaza Bar at the Westgate Hotel in the heart of downtown San Diego.

Each week, Castellanos appears with a rotating trio, usually involving piano and bass, and what happens inside the ornate confines of this tiny space is nothing short of transformative -- the place becomes a sanctuary of listening.

Even the throbbing pain of a searing earache could not diminish my listening experience on Jan. 16, when Castellanos, piano master Joshua White and the redoubtable bassist Rob Thorsen gathered forces to explore the improvising esthetic without benefit of a net.

Opening with the Sonny Rollins classic “Why Don’t I?,” Castellanos extrapolated the giddy repetitions inside the theme and cranked the tension into a higher dimension, whereupon White grabbed the baton and struck out freestyle, unleashing a cascade of notes with allusions to John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” spilling over the top.

An untitled blues from the pen of White was next, filled with rumbling drama and a fierce groove via the protean walk of Thorsen, who propelled Castellanos to all manner of intervallic liquidity as well as a startling, naked solo of his own. Starting from minimalist themes, White toggled between impressionistic flourishes and an intoxicating melange of the tender and the brutal.

Castellanos changed  pace by picking up the flugelhorn and blowing a tender version of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” which was the sonic equivalent of a candlelit dinner, before snapping off a furious count-off to Charlie Parker’s “Segment,” which swung harder than the front gate at the Playboy mansion.

The second set didn’t let up at all. This is the place to go on Friday night. Get there early – you won’t be disappointed.

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.

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