Yoshi’s in Oakland is the center for jazz in the East Bay, but there’s another place that connoisseurs of the heirs of Bird, Dizzy and Duke need to check out: the Empress Theatre in Vallejo.
Vallejo? Yes, Vallejo, now the home of le jazz chaud. One might reasonably argue that Vallejo is the new Brooklyn of the Bay Area, a place that has been the subject of much derision over the years but that is now gradually on the upswing. The center of this resurgence is the downtown Empress, a small, intimate refurbished theatre with a cocktail bar, comfortable seats, and a top-flight, knock-your socks off sound system.
The Empress hosts a variety of performances—rock, funk, tribute bands, comedy, film. My favorite is the occasional Sunday evening jazz performances hosted by the Vallejo Jazz Society. The other Sunday Dmitri Matheny and his group—pianist Ken French, tenor sax man Charles McNeal, Ron Belcher on bass, drummer Leon Joyce Jr.—played two entertaining, straight ahead jazz sets that featured jazz standards, movie soundtracks, classics from the Great American songbook, and a few originals.
Among other things the audience learned what a flugelhorn is. This is what Matheny plays, with verve. To start the show he held up his instrument and asked the audience to say the word “flugelhorn.” Then, at concert’s end, he said, “Now you know what a flugelhorn is. I go into schools and kids think a flugelhorn is a made-up Dr. Suess kind of thing.”
There were some very nice moments, including a tribute to film noir songs. Matheny, apparently a film buff, explained how “Caravan,” their next to last song, was featured in safecracking scenes in “Ocean’s 11, Ocean 13, the original Italian Job, and the sad Mark Wahlberg remake.” But I walked out of the theater into the new Brooklyn night humming the band’s encore, a beautiful take on Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman.”—Kevin Nelson