Craig Handy Quartet at Mr. Tipple's
The Craig Handy Quartet at Mr. Tipple's: Joe Gilman, Craig Handy, Marcus Shelby, and Sylvia Cuenca | Credit: Jay Bordeleau

Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio has managed to thrive as one of the Bay Area’s best jazz clubs while located just two blocks east of the SFJAZZ Center on Fell Street. Rather than wilting in the shadow of the West Coast’s premiere jazz presenter, the supper club has found a niche with a regular rotation of top Bay Area players along with occasional artists from out of town.   

Oakland-raised New Jersey saxophonist Craig Handy, who just completed a run of gigs around the region with the Cookers, played the early set on Saturday night, delivering a deeply satisfying program with a smart and well-balanced quartet. He’s hit several other jazz spots over the past month, including Bird & Beckett and Piedmont Piano Company, joined by San José drummer Sylvia Cuenca, who propelled Handy’s band through a diverse array of grooves.

A prolific composer with a deceptively slim discography, Handy has worked in the Bay Area over the years mostly as a sideman, including concerts with the Mingus Big Band, trumpet great Freddie Hubbard, and piano star Herbie Hancock (at the concert that christened Yoshi’s on Jack London Square in 1997). Now a veteran master himself, Handy opened the evening on alto sax with a new original, the mounting anthem “Maria’s Theme: Courageous Heart.”  

Craig Handy Quartet at Mr. Tipple's
The Craig Handy Quartet at Mr. Tipple's | Credit: Jay Bordeleau

With his warm, pliable alto tone, Handy dug into a sleek and funky version of Mulgrew Miller’s “Soul-Leo” from the late pianist’s early album Wingspan. It’s a near-standard with a singsong theme that builds to a compressed backbeat, delivered by Cuenca with crisp precision. (Cuenca returns to Mr. Tipple’s on March 23 leading her own quartet).

Handy introduced his new tune “Come Again?” as a “cocktail-piano” piece written at the keys while hunkered down during the pandemic. Switching to tenor sax for the first time in the set, he dug into the swaggering mid-tempo tune with such a Dexter Gordon-ish presence it felt more like a cold pitcher of stout. Bassist Marcus Shelby, who had spent the previous two evenings down the street at the SFJAZZ Center anchoring the premiere of a new orchestral work by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, locked in with Cuenca to keep the quartet at a finger-snapping canter.

Pianist Joe Gilman, too little heard on Bay Area stages since he relocated to the capital to teach at American River College and Sacramento State, demonstrated with each eloquent solo why he was an accompanist of choice for vibraphone legend Bobby Hutcherson. A brief but satisfying duet with Handy on tenor sax on Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” more than filled the set’s requisite ballad spot as he mined the theme’s rich vein of romanticism. The steady thrum of chatter from the bar eased as the melody ascended.

The set closed with Handy’s “Lexi’s Song,” a tune introduced on bassist Avery Sharpe’s 2011 tribute to Jesse Owens, Running Man. The alluring melody sounded familiar but not derivative, with graceful contours redolent of the imagination of George Cables (Handy’s bandmate in the Cookers). Alternating between tenor and alto, he leaned into the theme like a soul crooner, offering more evidence for his durable lyricism and resourcefulness as a tunesmith.