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SFJAZZ Collective

Miguel Zenon


Matt Penman

Robin Eubanks

Renee Rosnes

SFJAZZ Collective

Robin Eubanks

photos by Albert Brooks

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Swyer Theatre @ The Egg
Albany, NY
March 8, 2009

by J Hunter

After SFJazz Collective came out for a well-deserved encore, bassist Matt Penman declared “This is a different kind of New York crowd!” Sounds like someone got some Big Apple attitude during their previous gig at Jazz @ Lincoln Center’s Allen Room. (“This is Manhattan, Golden Gate Boy! We’ve seen it all before, and invented most of it!”
Let’s face it, SFJazz’ longtime mission statement wasn’t going to make any friends in the Wynton Marsalis fiefdom where anything but jazz orthodoxy gets hit with the big hammer. Each year, every Collective member is supposed to come up with two things: A new arrangement of a work by that season’s featured artist, and an original composition inspired by that artist. (Past honorees include Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Wayne Shorter; McCoy Tyner gets the spotlight this season.) That kind of revisionist heresy isn’t going to get big love in a place where the zenith of musical creativity happened when some genius said, “Let’s pretend Duke Ellington wrote A Love Supreme!”
But Lord love a duck, how could you not be impressed with any group that boasts a front line like SFJazz’? I mean, seriously! Dave Douglas? Joe Lovano? Miguel Zenon? Robin Eubanks? That’s not impressive, even when it’s backstopped by Eric Harland, arguably the best drummer on the planet today? Give each one of the aforementioned musicians a group of their own, and you’d have a pretty righteous jazz festival! I can assure you the crowd at the sold-out Swyer Theatre was duly impressed when the Collective opened with a multi-hued tone poem that morphed beautifully into a grooving take on Tyner’s “Fly with The Wind.”
“Fly” was arranged by Renee Rosnes, one of the few original Collective members left in the group. (Like Law & Order, SFJazz tends to churn its cast every year or two. Stefon Harris’ recent departure slimmed down the group to a septet, leaving it without a vibes player for the first time ever.) To my mind, Rosnes had the toughest job in SFJazz the last few seasons, as the diminutive keyboard player had to adapt her style to suit the colorful harmonies of Herbie Hancock and the jarring slashes of Thelonious Monk. Now she’s living in Tyner’s percussion palace, and from all indications, she loves her new digs: She was lightning-fast on Zenon’s frenetic workup of “Four by Five”, and her dialogue with Penman on “Three Flowers” was just one flavorful aspect of a truly tasty encore.
But as good as the Tyner tributes were, this season’s original works were simply knock-out marvelous. “Sycamore” is yet another Dave Douglas suite that leaves you slack-jawed and breathless – the same way this crowd felt every time Douglas put his trumpet to his lips and blew us all down. Eubanks displayed truly muscular trombone on his joyously raucous “Yes We Can (Victory Dance).” (“You know what that’s all about,” Lovano said slyly afterwards. Lovano’s take on the Tyner ballad “Aisha” was as soulful as you’d expect from the King of New York.)
My favorite original – “Ecollective” – came from Harland, whose blissed-out introduction summed up the emotions of both the band and the crowd: “I get all swimmy back there playing the music. That’s jazz!” Harland went on to talk about how he’s influenced by Indian music, and how “Ecollective” is based on a 48-beat Indian tiha drum cadence. “If you change it to 8th notes,” he pointed out, “it’s ninety-six beats!” No matter what the count or the creative source was, the audience was floored when the entire septet vocalized the complex cadence before hitting the fiery melody that closed the regular set.
“Fiery” is a key word for the Collective, all the way down the line. Everything I’ve ever heard SFJazz do was conceived brilliantly, performed perfectly.  But beginning with last season’s Wayne Shorter tribute (and Lovano’s first full season as SFJazz Artistic Director), the group was infused with a truckload of blinding passion that kicked the Collective up and over previous high-water marks. Happily, this show made it clear that wasn’t a one-shot deal, and they’re ready to open even more new doors. Zenon’s solos on “Four” and “Ecollective” showed a commitment and an abandon that made you hold your head, it was so good, and the in-the-clear, three-way counter-solos Douglas, Lovano, and Zenon launched on “Three Flowers” were simply astonishing.
And that’s the difference between this crowd and the one SFJazz Collective had to deal with downstate: When we see something incredible, we don’t break out the pH strips and administer a litmus test; we give it the standing ovations it’s due.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.