"Where have I been?" Dave Chappelle asked a San Francisco crowd on Thursday night. "It’s a long story. Long, uninteresting story …"
It was his first night in a four-evening SFJazz residency at the Miner Auditorium, where the comedian’s eight performances were sold out before he took the stage. Chappelle chose not to - or didn’t get around to - accounting for the last seven-plus years spent mostly out of the public eye.
The night began somewhat ominously for audience members, who were greeted on the pathway to the auditorium with a sign demanding no heckling. (“Violators will be asked to leave.”) Since Chappelle’s abrupt departure from the ultra-popular “Chappelle’s Show” in 2006, his infrequent stand-up appearances have occasionally imploded, with audience interference the most frequent catalyst.
That wasn’t going to happen in front of the patient SFJazz crowd, which had been warned in every promotion that this would be an evening of both comedy and music. Jazz harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet was received politely. Chappelle later welcomed Oakland singer Goapele for a short but soaring R&B set. The comic even sat behind the keyboard for two minutes; that performance was prematurely aborted after the headliner seemed to get bored, or self-conscious.
Chappelle’s comedy appeared to be about 70 percent invented on the spot (or at least the taxi ride over) and 30 percent from prepared material. His approach these days is like gold mining - he finds a vein that seems equally likely to yield a continuous bounty, or peter out to a quick and disappointing end. A bit about the robbery of rapper 2 Chainz in San Francisco was confusingly brief. But it was followed by a wonderfully unhinged skewering of wealth-related tensions in San Francisco.
"I saw it on the news. San Francisco is the first city to hold benefits on behalf of the middle class," Chappelle quipped, to roars from the audience.
That was one of several seemingly spontaneous lines that showed Chappelle’s educated side, including a well-read understanding of regional issues. Along with racial and marijuana-related humor, there was also a pointed and very funny riff about California’s high tax rate.
As Chappelle chain-smoked - cigarettes - and took his time between subjects, the material became increasingly conversational. Chappelle talked a little about parenthood. And he addressed his last disastrous set, a summer 2013 headlining appearance at a comedy festival in Hartford, in fascinating and honest detail.
His eclectic love of music became part of “Chappelle’s Show,” and was further explored in the underrated “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” documentary. He’s also a comic whose performance is nourished from outside stimuli. A backing band of four excellent jazz players enhanced Chappelle’s SFJazz performance; it was a good decision to keep them on stage throughout the night.
There was one annoying heckler spewing barely intelligible demands during Thursday’s early show, but Chappelle welcomed him, apparently satisfied that no one was shouting out lines from old “Chappelle’s Show” bits.
Ultimately the audience was rewarded for their patience, as the comedian was allowed to define himself, one free-form block of humor at a time.
"It’s like jazz, baby," Chappelle said. "I could do jokes, but I’m improvising."
Dave Chappelle also performs Jan. 31-Feb. 2 at the SF Jazz Center. The shows are sold out.