Bruce Forman
Bruce Forman at Keys Jazz Bistro | Credit: Jessica Levant

Physicists say that time travel is impossible, but catching a late-night set by guitarist Bruce Forman in North Beach last week felt like stepping into a wormhole back to the 1990s. In the latter decades of the 20th century, the ace jazz guitarist was a ubiquitous presence on Bay Area bandstands, playing straight-ahead modern jazz with seemingly casual virtuosity. But around the turn of the century, lifestyle choices and career opportunities exerted a steady gravitational pull south, first taking Forman and his wife to the Monterey area and then to Los Angeles, where he took on a faculty position at the USC Thornton School of Music.

Teaching online during the pandemic facilitated a return to his beloved Monterey Bay, and though Forman settled in Carmel Valley several years ago, he’s been a scarce presence in the Bay Area for far too long. He certainly didn’t go all Hollywood, judging by his late set Thursday at Keys Jazz Bistro, the second of his four nights at the North Beach club. (Forman ventures north again for a reunion run with bass maestro John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton at Half Moon Bay’s Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society April 16 and Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center April 17.)

Forman is still rocking the Sam Elliott ’stache and keeping company with a cowboy hat. He hasn’t lost that jaunty, amused air and wise-cracking demeanor suggesting that, behind the rigorous musicianship, jazz is a whole lot of fun. Playing with Keys’ owner Simon Rowe on Hammond B-3 organ and Brian Fishler on drums, Forman took listeners right back to North Beach nights at the lamented Jazz at Pearl’s.

Brian Fishler and Simon Rowe
Brian Fishler (drums) and Simon Rowe (organ) at Keys Jazz Bistro | Credit: Jessica Levant

The trio opened with the standard “Sweet and Lovely,” leaving pregnant pauses between each soloist’s transition. The familiar melody unfurled as a series of supple, tension-building surprises set up by the trio’s dynamic shading phrase to phrase and note to note. Rowe kicked off Larry Young’s post-bop anthem “Tyrone,” bearing down on the blues with freight-train momentum. He and Forman know how to sculpt a solo for dramatic effect, but both men are also savvy accompanists. Forman’s chordal comping was as fun to watch as his warm-toned single-note runs, while Rowe’s swelling organ fills and steady washes gave Forman an elastic foundation.

In a really Throwback Thursday move, Forman even offered an homage to North Beach’s bawdy lineage, working blue with a ditty he wrote inspired by his incredulity at hearing a man express distaste for fellatio. Delivered solo, leaving his bandmates as innocent bystanders, he talk-crooned the original lyrics, which earn points for rhyming Hanukkah with Monica (as in Lewinsky). Hardly the set’s most musical moment, but as a diversion it wasn’t hard to swallow, and Lenny Bruce would have been proud.

The trio recovered with three beautifully rendered standards, starting with “There Will Never Be Another You,” propelled by Fishler’s feathery brush work. Forman introduced “These Foolish Things” with a long, abstract solo passage that gradually revealed the lovingly worn melody. They closed the set with Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach’s quintessential ode to nostalgia, “Yesterdays.” But rather than doubling down on sentiment, they goosed the tune with a sinewy groove, spinning the backward glance into a funky, present-tense moment to savor.