SFJAZZ Collective: Ottawa, Canada, October 13, 2011
Turnera one-time regular collaborator with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel but, in recent years, seen with everyone from trumpeter Enrico Rava to saxophonist David Binney and his collaborative Fly, and last heard on Sky & Country (ECM, 2009)has always been considered a cerebral player, and while there's little doubt he's spent a lot of time honing a style that's predicated on remarkable technique and an ability to navigate huge intervallic leaps with frightening accuracy, he's got plenty of heart, too, engaging in some escalating interplay with Zenón at the end of pianist Edward Simon's lyrical arrangement of Wonder's "Ma Cherie Amour." An irregularly metered, richly harmonized take on the memorable melody led, as Simon's arrangement opened up into a piano solo of such motivic focus and invention that it's a wonder the Guggenheim and MacDowell fellowship inductee hasn't reached critical mass yet, for his work with the Collective and superb solo records like Poesia (Cam Jazz, 2009).
Simon's solo on the first set-opener, "Sir Duke," was equally impressive, with remarkable left/right-hand independence that, at one point, built to stunning polyphonic lines in contrary motion, his left hand descending to the piano's lower register while his right ascended to its upper; but what the tune also made clear, early in the evening, was that this incarnation of SFJAZZ Collective wasn't afraid to introduce some processing into the mix. Cohen's trumpet was fed through some guitar pedalswah wah, distortion and delay pedals could easily be heardand into a Fender amplifier, while Robin Eubanks laptop processing turned his trombone solo, during his own aptly titled "Metronome," into a sonic tour de force, with the Collective ratcheting up into some near-fusion energy.
Perhaps the Collective's greatest strength was its abilitywhether on arrangements of classic Wonder material or new compositionsto blend improvisational freedom with modernistic charts that took full advantage of its mid-sized instrumental palette. SFJAZZ Collective is unequivocally a blowing band, but these were anything but simple head-solo-head arrangements. At various points during the set, band members could be seen quickly flipping sides and scrambling to opening up multi-multi-page charts in time. That everyone in the band is a leader in his own right means that when the Collective reconvenes each year, there are experiences gained elsewhere brought to the table. Harris' own groove-heavy group, Blackoutlast heard on Urbanus (Concord, 2009)may be more decidedly urban than SFJAZZ Collective, but a taste of it was an undercurrent on the vibraphonist's original, "Life Signs"a tune which started as an ostinato-based feature for Simon, but as the group gradually entered, revealed its intrinsic complexity.
With eight strong soloists, it was almost impossible to pick favorites, and it's more than likely that those choices would change each night. With players at this level, it's unlikely anyone ever has a bad night, but they surely have better ones, and in Ottawa, Eubanks, Zenón and Harris seemed especially on fire, the cream of a very rich crop: Eubanks' ability to build solos to fever pitch; Zenón combining a particularly warm alto tone with solos that seamlessly combined head and heart; and Harris, who was capable of frightening speed and four-mallet dexterity, but who could say just as much with a single repeated note, laid into it hard.
In the spirit of its egalitarian nature, different members of the bandHarris, Simon, Eubanksintroduced the band and its tunes, but it was Cohen's introduction of the encore, his own dark but tender ballad, "Family," that drew the most laughs. After reiterating that there were, indeed, CDs for sale in the foyer, and that the band would be out to meet and sign after the show, he said "And all proceeds are going to needy families...ours." This is jazz, after all, and despite the popular and critical accolades these players draw as members of SFJAZZ Collective and as leaders of their own projectsand despite the kind of response they were able to draw from the sadly only half-full Centrepoint Theatre, nearly as loud and raucous as a full housethese stellar musicians know that they gain ground one town at a time, one fan at a time. After the show, as they mingled with the folks who hung around in the foyer, it was clear that they appreciated the value of connecting with their fans, and if their Ottawa show was any indication, they're clearly on a winning streak.