Kenny Washington
Kenny Washington at Keys Jazz Bistro | Credit: Stuart Brinin

On his opening night Wednesday, vocalist Kenny Washington trotted onto the Keys Jazz Bistro stage for his second show and already seemed right at home. The nonpareil Oakland jazz artist works regularly around the region when he’s not performing in New York City or Europe, but it’s rare indeed for the Grammy Award-nominated singer to settle into a four-night run in the Bay Area. That might be changing.

As the first artist booked at the new North Beach venue after its three-night gala opening, Washington delivered a casually virtuosic set that made the best case for jazz as a populist art form. When you’ve got friends who are unfamiliar with jazz or unconvinced of the music’s appeal, Washington offers an ideal gateway with a sound and stage presence that’s as warm and welcoming as a steaming bath on a chilly night.

Kenny Washington
Kenny Washington at Keys Jazz Bistro | Credit: Stuart Brinin

His musicianship is superlative, but what makes Washington such a delight as a performer is his assimilation of modern jazz’s rhythmic and harmonic lexicon with inflections gleaned from the best of 1970s soul, as if Ella Fitzgerald and Donny Hathaway had a love child.

Accompanied by a confident and masterly trio featuring pianist David Udolf, bassist Ron Belcher, and drummer Deszon Claiborne, Washington was in more than capable hands. Evidentially feeling in a Brazilian mood, he interpreted about half the songs with an array of brisk bossa nova grooves. Opening with “Invitation,” the Bronisław Kaper and Paul Francis Webster standard usually delivered as a sinuous ballad, Washington raced through the piece while Claiborne’s double-time cymbal work catalyzed the unsettling melody.

In Washington’s hands, Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Girl From Ipanema” turned into a spirited sprint down to the surf, and the already imploring “Agua de Beber” seemed to take on desperation as the arrangement gained velocity. Scatting with a personalized set of phrases on “Sweet Georgia Brown,” the singer executed some tricky phrases with the aplomb of a behind-the-back Meadowlark Lemon pass.

All the turbocharged swinging meant that time seemed to bend to Washington’s will when he slowed down to savor a ballad. “My Foolish Heart” featured a particularly well-crafted solo by Belcher, a big-toned player who makes the instrument sing in every register. On a set brimming with arrestingly beautiful moments, the high point was Washington’s unhurried and ache-filled “But Beautiful” as he let a pregnant pause build tension between each phrase. Matching Washington’s patient delivery with darkly glinting chords, Udolf again revealed that Keys possesses a magnificent instrument. Pianists are going to be lining up to play the room.

Hopefully, jazz fans will, too. The club’s Nov. 10 opening was a major event, attracting numerous musicians, politicians, and fellow venue owners, respect that extended to Washington’s opening, which saw Piedmont Piano Company proprietor Jim Callahan and The Sound Room’s Karen Van Leuven and Robert Bradsby in the house. (The Sound Room has served as Washington’s home base for the past decade.)

Simon Rowe
Simon Rowe at Keys Jazz Bistro | Credit: Stuart Brinin

Pianist/organist Simon Rowe, co-owner and artistic director of Keys, is betting on the Bay Area’s jazz scene to provide the club’s primary talent pool by featuring resident artists on four-night, Wednesday-through-Saturday runs (with two shows a night). He plays himself Nov. 23–26 with his trio and alto saxophonist Andrew Speight (with Adam Shulman bringing in an organ combo for late-night sets Nov. 25–26). Saxophone great Noel Jewkes plays Nov. 30 – Dec. 3 (Rowe’s organ trio covers the late shifts Dec. 2–3). And drummer Sylvia Cuenca settles in with her quartet Dec. 7–10 (with Blood, Sweat & Tears organist Adam Klipple moonlighting Dec. 9–10).

Rowe has already played a significant role on the California jazz scene during his five-year stint as executive director of University of the Pacific’s sadly defunct Brubeck Institute and founding executive director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Roots, Jazz, and American Music program. He seems to have put the experience to good use as Keys Jazz Bistro has the look of a winner.

It’s not just that the club boasts excellent sound, intimate seating with unobstructed sightlines, and competent, welcoming staff. The room provides something all too rare in San Francisco: a dedicated space away from the bar designed for listening. And then there’s the insuperable location. It’s no secret that San Francisco has been bumbling through tough times that have dulled the city’s allure. But there’s something magical about stepping outside a jazz club into the North Beach night, an experience that’s partly defined the neighborhood for more than a century. Keys Jazz Bistro unlocks that portal, connecting the Bay Area’s contemporary scene to the music’s earliest manifestation when ragtime players from the Midwest and New Orleans musicians were drawn to the bawdy Barbary Coast by the profusion of work opportunities.