By Jen Van Tieghem
Long the genre of choice at whiskey bars and hotel lounges, jazz music lately has found a number of new nooks around the San Diego region. For several months now, an unassuming neighborhood haunt right in La Mesa has been one such host to some of the best local players of the genre.
The Rook Bar (7745 University Ave.) may look like a run-of-the-mill watering hole, but each week saxophonist Charlie Arbelaez and his cohorts transform it into a swanky jazz club with their Friday Midnight Jam. The end of the week entertainment lingers into the early hours of Saturday morning with an abundance of “jammers” showing up to participate.
The idea for the jam sessions sprung when Arbelaez frequented the Rook over the summer to watch World Cup soccer matches. Chatting with owner Chris Haney and other staff members, Arbelaez mentioned that he was a professional musician. Haney’s interest was piqued, and in late August, he gave Arbelaez the Friday slot and the freedom to do with it what he wanted.
Arbelaez appreciates that freedom.
“I get to play whatever I want,” Arbelaez said. “That’s such a blessing.”
As a hired musician, he explained, he’s often called upon to play genres other than jazz. From gospel to rock to blues, the style and song choices come from various bandleaders and venues Arbelaez works for.
“That’s part of the process… to go in and manipulate different styles and inflection and be able to bring to the table more than just what’s written on the page,” Arbelaez said. “But, in particular, what I love about the Friday Midnight Jam is that it’s all bebop — it’s all jazz, it’s all hard-swinging, up-tempo, really fun, beautiful jazz music.”
To kick off that beautiful jazz music each Friday, the Charlie Arbelaez Trio performs as the “house band” starting around 9:30 p.m. The trio is comprised of Arbelaez, of course, with a drummer and bass player who vary from week to week. Sometimes they’ll expand with keys or other instruments for this more structured portion.
“For me, it’s an opportunity to teach an audience,” Arbelaez described of the first set. “I get to talk about the music a little bit — I get to grab their attention and take them on a journey.”
After an hour or so of the core band playing, the jam session opens up and things get cranked up a notch in energy, if not volume. You see, Arbelaez has been playing in San Diego for a number of years, and like most great musicians he has a network of instrument-toting pals. Drummers rotate through, bass players trade out to complete the rhythm section and any number of other musicians will make an appearance, from piano players to guitarists to talents on various woodwind and brass instruments. As bandleader Arbelaez guides the jam session, he calls upon his friends in attendance to come play. The collaborative music fills the air.
“I swing by as often as I can,” pianist Ed Kornhauser said. “Even if I have a gig that ends late – it’s always a good way to end the day!”
The sessions come as a surprise to many patrons who wander into the Rook for a drink to usher in the weekend. Arbelaez says some aren’t looking for music and opt not to stay while others show up religiously, never missing a session.
The faithful Friday night fans are treated to something different each week, Arbelaez explained. With different musicians stopping by and different song choices and themes explored, there’s always something fresh popping up. With the holidays approaching, the saxophonist even expects to work in some festive tunes at upcoming performances.
The dynamic jazz jam sessions are a worthwhile spectacle — even if you don’t live close by. Seeing quality music in an intimate setting can often cost a pretty penny, but Fridays at the Rook are free; plus, the bar has a surprisingly wide selection of craft beer and small production wines, the latter chosen by a professional sommelier.
Good drinks and great music — what more could you want to kick off your weekend?
—Write to Jen Van Tieghem at email@example.com.