It’s easy to be dazzled by the SFJAZZ Center. Between the facility’s eye-popping $64-million price, consummate sound quality and exceptional sightlines, graceful design and voluminous quality programming, SFJAZZ seems to have done just about everything right in creating a state-of-the-art venue for jazz. But what makes the Center such a nonpareil accomplishment is that the building has allowed the organization’s musical relationships to flourish like never before. Over a five-night run, starting with Jan. 18’s gala honoring tabla maestro Zakir Hussain with an SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement Award, the organization produced a series of consistently thrilling concerts to celebrate the Bay Area-based jazz giants who helped SFJAZZ gain credibility as a presenter: Tony Williams, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson and John Handy.
From its 1983 birth as an itinerant concert series called Jazz in the City, SFJAZZ took a broad and deep view of the jazz tradition, which is why the honor for Hussain, a world-music pioneer and intrepid sonic explorer, was entirely in keeping with SFJAZZ’s history. Hussain credits his 1990 duo encounter with Joe Henderson at an SFJAZZ-produced concert with opening the door to jazz collaborations. (His earlier work alongside Handy and then John McLaughlin in Shakti were more akin to classical Indian recitals than jazz gigs.) Highlighting Hussain’s jazz connections while also serving as a tantalizing preview of coming attractions, the gala proceeded as a series of rarified encounters.