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.
Joshua Redman, as the tenor saxophonist on a night devoted to John Coltrane, was perhaps in a difficult position. But he held his own nonetheless. No, Redman is no Coltrane, but he didn't have to be. The Collective is emphatically not about recreating the past. Vibrancy, not imitation, was the watchword for the night, and Redman had plenty of that. Switching to soprano sax for Rosnes' tender yet sophisticated composition, "Love is Enough," Redman offered a string of very short phrases spiked with snaky interjections, leading into a series of climbing statements that blended well with Rosnes' own precise lines.
Redman was also strong when trading off with Harland on Coltrane's "26-2," but Nicholas Payton earned top honors on this tune, spinning classic bebop with a New Orleans twist over the molasses-thick bass work of Matt Penman. Isaac Smith, who seemed short of ideas in his earlier solos, made up for it here with a rushing break on trombone.
Bobby Hutcherson made his stand as featured soloist on "Naima." After the rhythm section had established a hushed tropical mood, Hutcherson's solo displayed a depth of feeling that might have embarrassed his young comrades if they had tried to follow him. Beginning with a simple elaboration of the melody, Hutcherson became increasingly baroque until he seemed to reach an entirely new composition, then pulled back gently to his starting point for a shimmering conclusion.
"Naima" was a hard act to follow, and the title of Redman's "Half Full" seemed unfortunately apt in this context. This carefully arranged tune, which began pensively before jumping into a light strut, seemed to lack animation compared with the other originals, despite some solid solos and a profusion of unison horn blasts. It was rescued near the end by another tough solo from Payton.
Hutcherson brought more to the table with his "Song for Peggy," an introspective tune with a lurking sense of propulsion. Zenón, who started on flute, tapped into this undercurrent after switching back to alto sax, turning out a punchy solo before Hutcherson guided the band to a soft landing, ending with just his mallet sticks tapping against each other.
The energy level came back up, and fast, in Nicholas Payton's deliriously disjointed "Scrambled Eggs." With noisy group interludes, Hutcherson hopping between vibraphone and marimba, and a peppy turn from Redman, the band threw the room off-balance before ending the night with a straight-up version of Coltrane's "Dear Lord." The classic nightclub feel of the closing number left band and audience feeling good, a satisfying ending to a two-hour ride.
When the SFJAZZ Collective was first created, there was some grumbling hidden under the acclaim. Some griped that the band wasn't composed entirely of locals, others that the group was too artificial in construction and agenda. One rarely hears such murmurs anymore, and the Mountain View performance showed why. It is not perfect, and it is not truly a local band per se, but the Collective works. It is a project that does SFJAZZ and the city of San Francisco proud, and it deserves a long and fruitful life.
Visit the SFJAZZ Collective on the web.