Swyer Theatre @ The Egg
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 Centers Allen Room. (This is Manhattan, Golden Gate Boy! Weve seen it all before, and invented most of it!
Lets face it, SFJazz longtime mission statement wasnt 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 seasons 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 isnt going to get big love in a place where the zenith of musical creativity happened when some genius said, Lets 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? Thats not impressive, even when its 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 youd 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 Tyners 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 shes living in Tyners percussion palace, and from all indications, she loves her new digs: She was lightning-fast on Zenons 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 seasons 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 thats all about, Lovano said slyly afterwards. Lovanos take on the Tyner ballad Aisha was as soulful as youd 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. Thats jazz! Harland went on to talk about how hes 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, its 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 Ive ever heard SFJazz do was conceived brilliantly, performed perfectly. But beginning with last seasons Wayne Shorter tribute (and Lovanos 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 wasnt a one-shot deal, and theyre ready to open even more new doors. Zenons 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 thats the difference between this crowd and the one SFJazz Collective had to deal with downstate: When we see something incredible, we dont break out the pH strips and administer a litmus test; we give it the standing ovations its 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.