Marcus Roberts Trio and the SFJAZZ Collective
Marcus Roberts Trio and
The SFJAZZ Collective
Kimmel Center, Verizon Hall
March 24, 2006
The Mellon Jazz Festival at the Kimmel Center has had consistently fine programming, with top names, innovative ideas, variety to suit every taste (from Tony Bennett to Ornette Coleman), and its fair share of musical excitement and memorable moments. But even within such a context, this concert featuring the Marcus Roberts Trio and the SFJAZZ Collective stood out from the others in terms of consistently fine playing, energetic yet tasteful improvising, combining standards and original compositions, intensity and discipline, technical superiority and musical ideas in a totally satisfying way.
The Marcus Roberts Trio came on with a carefully selected variety of tunes, from Coltrane's "Mr. PC to Jelly Roll Morton's "New Orleans Blues to "A Foggy Day to Roberts' piano solo composition, "Blues in the Evening Time. This is a group that emphasizes precision and discipline. Their professional, gentlemanly demeanor and reasoned approach to the music reminded me of The Modern Jazz Quartet's serious attitude, noted for the absence of the stereotypical jazz group's loose, informal posture. With an impeccable sense of tempo and phrasing, their renditions possessed an absolutism and consistency that commanded attention to every nuance.
For example, the Jelly Roll Morton number was an object lesson in Morton's boogie woogie style, highlighted by Roberts' deft left hand bass lines. Roland Guerin's masterly "slap bass technique gave a new twist to the big band era favorite, "Cherokee. Jason Marsalis' use of timpani sticks gave an almost orchestral feel to his own composition, "Rhythm is the Thing. Marcus Roberts himself showed himself to be a master of the entire spectrum of musical genres. In sharp contrast to the reasoned explication of Jelly Roll Morton's style, parts of "A Foggy Day evoked memories of Erroll Garner. And "Blues in the Evening Time stretched from shades of George Gershwin's "jazzy "Concerto in F to tastes of impressionism and of Keith Jarrett.
The follow-up to the Roberts Trio was the SFJAZZ Collective. This ensemble is blessed with eight of the best musicians in the business and a grant-funded opportunity to meet each year for a three-week residency in San Francisco where they can focus on the creative process without distraction. (Any impression that the musicians are San Francisco natives is, however, purely coincidental.) They mix original compositions and other works dedicated each year to an outstanding musician, with this year devoted to Herbie Hancock. The group performed several Hancock compositions including "Little One and "Maiden Voyage, and the entire set had Hancock's intensity and striving to transcend the limits.
The Collective, an octet, stands quantitatively between a small group and a big band, and combines the best features of small group intimacy and individual expression with big band drive and richness of sound. One of the reasons for this is the strength of Gil Goldstein's outstanding arrangements. I am sure that Goldstein is a prime reason for the exceptional coherence and power of this group. The other reasons are, of course, their musical skill and fierce dedication under Joshua Redman's direction.
A complete description and analysis of their performance would constitute a full semester course in musical expression. To highlight a few moments in this outstanding set, the first piece, "Collective Overture by group member Miguel Zenon, began with a Stravinsky-like concatenation of sounds and motifs, and fleshed out into Latin rhythms, with superb rapid-fire solos by the great Bobby Hutcherson and Zenon himself. Hancock's "Little One featured an astonishing solo by Renee Rosnes that would have "freaked Hancock himself. Rosnes is simply the best piano side-person (apologies for the neologism) in the business today. Andre Hayward's trombone solo in his own composition, "Serene Intentions (anything but serene!) was a model of trombone artistry, matched only by Nicholas Payton's "fireworks solo on trumpet in the same piece. Hancock's "Riot had the "rumble feel of "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue which Redman took full advantage of in a rocking tenor sax solo. The concluding number, drummer Eric Harland's "Triumph began with a Copeland-esque motif, leading to a constant fugal theme of tolling bells of victory, followed by a climactic drum solo by Harland. J.J. Johnson, that beautiful human being and ultimate master trombonist of few words and many well-placed notes, would have summed it all up with his simple exclamation, "Wow!
Because I believe in the uniqueness and merit of each jazz event and player, I don't like to compare performances or musicians. But if I were to give an award for the best overall live jazz set this writer has heard in the New Milennium, it would be this one by the SFJAZZ Collective. It simply had everything one could wish for.