How much music can fit into one night? That depends on how carefully you plan.
Last Saturday I sampled some opera, jazz, and disco. It could have been rap, hardcore, and bluegrass, I suppose, but I was in the mood for opera, jazz, and disco. In that order. This is a recap, not a review, of a night spent checking in on San Francisco’s musical grand buffet.
At 5:30pm, I bought a standing room ticket for San Francisco Opera’s “Les Troyens” (The Trojans). Composer Hector Berlioz based the work on Virgil’s epic poem, “The Aeneid,” and the undertaking was so massive it had to be split into two separate operas, each with their own curtain call.
The Fall Of Troy
The first section, “The Fall Of Troy,” concerned the infamous Trojan Horse scheme. The action was set against the wall of Troy, a war-distressed facade the color of shipwreck. Here, the city people were celebrating the disappearance of their nemeses, the Greeks, who had been attacking the city for a decade, but absconded in the middle of the night and left behind a giant, shiny horse statue. The cursed soothsayer Cassandra, sensing calamity, tries to temper their enthusiasm; no one believes her. The priest Laocoön tries to persuade them to leave the horse outside the wall; he gets eaten by sea monsters.
“The Trojans” was completed by French composer Hector Berlioz in 1858. Berlioz is the same guy whose “Symphonie Fantastique” was borrowed by Wendy Carlos Williams to score Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Williams chose a melody that’s so dark it gets rolled out at college football games to intimidate opponents on third down. I don’t know what the trademark Berlioz sound is. But during the story of Laocoön, the music galloped into a breaking-news string staccato rhythm. Then, at the mention of the sea monsters, it belched a plume of brass that sounded like the “Shining” moment when the elevator undams its cascade of blood.
That’s why my auditory cortex enjoyed a rest with the steady, ominous ear-candy of “March et Hymne: Dieux Protecteurs.” The song rolls smoothly over a militant snare drum, though even here the beat unexpectedly cuts out, leaving you aloft in the gauze of the chorus. Another quirky highlight was when the orchestra sounded as if it was behind the wall of Troy. It was either achieved through a small group of musicians actually behind the wall or a simple CD, but the effect, especially when blended by conductor Donald Runnicles with the pit orchestra, was perfectly unsettling.
That only brings us up to the first curtain call. And I haven’t even mentioned the mammoth metallic horse head parading around while Cassandra writhes on the ground under the weight of her visions before entreating the city’s women to join her in a live-free-or-die mass suicide.
But I was double-booked.
I had already committed to go see the Robert Glasper Trio around the corner at the SF Jazz Center, so I had to depart one scene into the second portion of the opera, “The Trojans at Carthage.” You may wonder, ‘Who the hell tries to squeeze in a Grand Opera like an aperitif?’ And it’s a fair question, but, as I said, this was not a normal night. And given the choice between some opera and no opera, I’m definitely in the former camp.
On his new album, “Covered,” Glasper revisits some of those collaborations, but strips down the format from a huge ensemble to the familiar trio of piano, bass, and drums.
Glasper’s fourth and final show of a weekend at the SF Jazz Center started slowly. When the trio took the stage, Glasper plunked his knee onto his piano bench, grabbed a mic, and said, “Did you hear the announcement?” The audience murmured, “No,” and he dead-panned to the band, “See, I told you.”
No telling what that first announcement was, but Glasper then joked about his extended family–Gladys Knight, Ruben Studdard, and “some football player”–and then announced that the trio would open the show with one of his favorite songs ever, Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings.” After an eruption of applause, Glasper spat, “I’m joking!” No, they were actually opening with something by “The Purple One…Barney, an innovator.” Really? No. Finally, the show started with a persistent breakbeat leading into The Purple One, Prince’s, “Sign Of The Times.”
The drums anchored the trio.
Deep into “I Don’t Even Care,” which was originally a languorous hip-hop tune on “Black Radio 2” that featured singer Macy Gray and rapper Jean Grae, the musicians split into different directions at a million miles an hour. Glasper stretched sheets of melodies across the piano like he was making phyllo dough. Meanwhile, Vicente Archer strode around in the mid-register of his bass. And Damion Reid peppered the thing to keep it moving with drum-n-bass beats. Reid was just what you want in a drummer, exercising tight control, but ready to explode at any moment.
After taking the song as far out as he could, Glasper returned to the “Covered” idea, lacing in snippets of the Roots and Erykah Badu’s “You Got Me” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Surprisingly, there was no Dilla cover, but there was a beat that sounded straight off a Dilla record. Late in the set, on “In Case You Forgot,” Reid completed a manic drum solo before settling into a wobbly hip-hop beat, a simple sounding thing with the timing shifted just enough so that it sounded like a confidently hobbling wino sashay.
This drunken boom-bap swings in its own way once you get comfortable with it.
Even the music fiend must stop to eat once in a while, but to keep in the spirit of the evening, I decamped to Cafe du Nord, a venue I never heard any fan say a bad thing about. After an 18-month renovation and a change in ownership, Cafe du Nord had just reopened as an oyster and burger restaurant–one that still had a stage, and two bars.
The renovation looks like your hip-as-roses gramma designed it in 1946 so that it would still look cherry in ’64. Word is Du Nord is definitely more restaurant now, less venue. With that in mind, the burger is perfectly medium-rare, charred-to-heaven, and served with a “secret” aioli; and the shooter, a Grassy Bar oyster bathing in cocktail sauce and aquavit and topped with a sprig of fennel, is a refreshing suckerpunch.
A band broke down and a few people mingled around the back bar while I ate. (The long, front bar retained its look and was jammed.) Mid-bite I heard someone squawk, “[We’re going to see] Dimitri From Paris!”, and looked up to see a guy in shorts and a gold-and-black jacket. At a squint he looked like a matador. “He’s a DJ,” the guy yelled in his friend’s ear. “He’s the one who’s bringing back disco.”
Mr. Playboy, Dimitri From Paris, has been spinning lesser-known disco cuts and deep house beats since the late ’80s. His brand of club music features sounds that existed before the synthesizer took over: live-recorded drums, bass, guitar, strings, pianos, clean vocals, all elements that impart a little swing and honey-coat every note. His Facebook profile calls it “Suave and bespoke Dance music for the finest in you.” “Bespoke” is actually a fitting word for it. Dimitri’s not necessarily making the cloth, but he is tailoring it to the crowd.
It turns out this idea tailed me the whole night: The SF Opera took on a 150-year-old score, note for note, but made the performance their own; the Robert Glasper Trio turned pop songs on their heads; and Dimitri sequenced existing recordings, but his very choices stamped his personality on the music. Even the restaurant was a cover of sorts–an updated version of Cafe du Nord featuring their take on that well-loved American standard, the hamburger.
Threading the needle to leave Mighty, I slip past young people, old people, straight and gay, burners and yuccies, and at least one techie crew on a team-building field trip. And then I see the matador: He’s carving out his own private dance floor on cloud nine; bumping into people on adjacent clouds both amused and offended, but barely noticing either. Total glee. Riding those four beats like they’ll never stop, but just keep on pulsing, one after the next, until the dam runs dry and the power shuts off and then the clouds rain down and get the dam going again and the power comes back on.
Right, it’s never going to stop.
Slurp down music from 6-2 every day and you’ll still never get close to the end. As much as I heard, I missed the longer of two operas, three Robert Glasper sets, 90 minutes of solid gold disco, a band at Du Nord and maybe a hundred other things in San Francisco on one night alone. You’ll never hear every song. But that’s no reason not to try.