SFJAZZ Collective in Mountain View, CA
“ The Collective is emphatically not about recreating the past. Vibrancy, not imitation, was the watchword for the night. ”
SFJAZZ, the presenting organization behind the San Francisco Jazz Festival, likes to think big. Perhaps no project exemplifies that thinking better than the SFJAZZ Collective, a jazz super group led by local residents Joshua Redman and Bobby Hutcherson. In their last Bay Area appearance before embarking on a national tour, the Collective dazzled a full house at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts.
When SFJAZZ first announced the formation of the Collective prior to its 2004 Spring Season, there was no denying that the plan was ambitious. As presented by Executive Director Randall Kline amid a flood of glossy press releases, the Collective would be an octet of big-name players, most from the younger generations of jazz stars. More than just a pick-up band, the group would spend several weeks each year working as a unit. They would record every concert, and release multiple-disc sets of the best performances. They would appear at schools and workshops wherever they went. All eight members of the band would write new works, to be presented alongside a changing repertoire of modern classics. Each year the Collective would turn its attentions to a different modern composer, starting with Ornette Coleman. And, Kline promised, it was going to knock everybody's socks off.
Now well into its second year and focused on the music of John Coltrane, the Collective has followed this plan to the letter. And it has delivered on every promise.
The lineup has changed somewhat since 2004. While Redman and Hutcherson continue to mark the group's axis, trombonist Josh Roseman has moved on, as have the rhythm tandem of Robert Hurst and Brian Blade. Isaac Smith now holds the trombone spot, while bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland fill the other two roles. The rest of the band remains intact: Miguel Zenón on alto sax and flute, Nicholas Payton on trumpet, and Renee Rosnes on piano.
Presenting a balanced program of six Coltrane tunes and six originals (Penman and Harland were the odd men out this night), the octet proved itself in the Mountain View concert to be tight, flexible, and inventive; a true band despite its members separate career paths.
The night started with a quick, scrambly version of Coltrane's "Moment's Notice." Zenón, on alto sax, took control at top speed and rode the tune like a cowboy at a rodeo, jerking and bobbing his body as he broke his solo down into short bursts. Hutcherson, clearly inspired by the material, added his stamp to the tune with a rollercoaster line of his own. A favorite with the Bay Area crowd, Hutcherson's every move seemed to spark fresh applause.
The baton passed to Nicholas Payton on "Crescent," which was also a showpiece for the band's arranger, Gil Goldstein. With complex harmonies amongst the horns and the melody moving across the front line like a searching spotlight, Payton provided an intense, tough-talking solo, nearly spitting out his phrases as his band mates urged him on.
A measure of toughness was also present in Zenón's elaborate composition, "Two By Two." Built on top of a streetwise vamp that could have come from a 1970s crime movie, full of abrupt stops and tricky crescendos, this number revealed Eric Harland as the unbilled star of the night. Harland's drum soloing, although wild, never failed to support the groove. Throughout the night it was Harland who continually stepped up when an extra spark was needed, constantly pushing the group to play just a bit harder.
Isaac Smith's song "Mmm" was more relaxed, an autumnal tone poem that led to some mellow interplay between Payton and Zenón, now on flute. It was a pleasant breather which allowed the band time to gather strength for "Africa," the first set's closer and the concert's strongest performance.
Starting with some quiet marimba playing from Hutcherson, the piece quickly built up steam as first drums, then piano and bass, and finally horns joined in to create a tempest of sound. As Redman extracted the tune's melody from the chaos, the rest of the band fell into a deep groove around Harland's percolating drum line. Redman's tenor sax promptly cleared a blazing path through the swooping horn section, and Renee Rosnes charged in. With the impenetrable elegance of an equation, dissonant chords rose and fell from Rosnes' left hand as her right stomped and scrambled all over the keys. She soon developed a dialogue with Harland, whose insistent playing would have been right at home behind the jazz masters of the 1960s.