Sunday, April 23, 2017

With visceral impact and artistic imagination, SF Jazz Collective blows through town on the first of two nights here

Rising out of the San Francisco Jazz Festival more than a decade ago, the SF Jazz Collective has made its mark by gathering
SF Jazz Collective: Eubanks, Calvaire, Wolf, Jones and Sanchez (standing, from left); Penman, Simon, Zenon (seated, from left)
top-drawer musicians into ensemble work periodically, focusing year after year on the work of the music's major figures and touring with it.

This weekend the current tour is playing a couple of nights at the Jazz Kitchen. I heard the first set of the first night Saturday; the program was centered on the legacy of Miles Davis. Typical of the group's creativity, the program also included original compositions, as well as members' arrangements of the trumpeter's works.

To present its calling card, the octet opened with "All Blues," a perennial favorite that has been taken up by many artists. This arrangement, by pianist Edward Simon, wound its way into the theme obliquely. It featured the grandiloquent vibraphone playing of Warren Wolf, and ended in a long coda with lots of nimble ensemble tags periodically inserted.

SF Jazz Collective arrangements typically avoid any "tribute" genuflections toward the honoree's manner of performance. This is particularly evident in how they handle their borrowings from pop heroes such as Stevie Wonder, as a three-disc issue from 2011. And the solos take off  from the new arrangement more than from the original, which puts everything the band is likely to play in its own universe.

This was amply evident in the second Davis number, "Joshua," a Wolf arrangement distinguished by Simon's cogent piano solo and the rip-roaring exuberance of trumpeter Sean Jones. "Milestones" brought front and center the arranging aptitude of bassist Matt Penman, with another indication of the fresh distribution of solos characteristic of the band. This time around, saxophonists Miguel Zenon (alto) and David Sanchez (tenor) were showcased.
Shields Green, an enslaved rebel

Among the attractive originals, trombonist Robin Eubanks introduced "Shields Green," a piece named for a participant in John Brown's 1859 raid on the weapons factory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia, and spelled without the apostrophe). The historical context drew from Eubanks a rootsy sound, anchored by regular finger snaps in which the composer encouraged audience participation. Simon turned from the grand piano to a synthesizer to make the accompaniment moodier. Eubanks took an extraordinarily agile solo, expressing his own voice but bringing to mind the virtuosity of one of his Indianapolis trombone heroes, J.J. Johnson.

Just as exciting and multifaceted a new piece was Jones' "Hutcherson Hug," named for the late Bobby Hutcherson, a vibraphonist who was a charter member of SF Jazz Collective. It presented a rare reflective episode in the first set, its gentle waltz theme elaborated in an expansive solo by Wolf, Hutcherson's successor as Jazz Collective vibist. Though the band gives him lots of company in this respect, Wolf is particularly outstanding in rolling out phrase after phrase with nary a stale idea or cliche to be heard.

The set closed with drummer Obed Abaire's "One Eleven," a complex, high-energy work full of cross-rhythms — naturally featuring a drum solo, but so much more than an excuse for percussion display. Like everything this band plays, the collective idea in its name always seems to be more important than anything close to individual grandstanding. When individuality is called for, there is no shortage in the supply, but the collective remains uppermost.