SFJAZZ Collective: SFJAZZ Collective: Live in New York Season 8 - Music of Stevie Wonder

John Kelman By

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SFJAZZ Collective: SFJAZZ Collective: Live in New York Season 8 - Music of Stevie Wonder
SFJAZZ Collective
Live in New York Season 8: Music of Stevie Wonder

One old adage says, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But another says, "Change is good." For the first time in its eight touring seasons, the SFJAZZ Collective has found a way to manage both. This is the first time that the lineup has remained constant from one year to the next, with the 2011 incarnation identical to that which released Live 2010: 7th Annual Concert Tour (SFJAZZ, 2010).

But while previous seasons have found this most modern of mainstream mid-size ensembles honoring a selected jazz icon—with each participant contributing both a new arrangement of an old tune and a new composition inspired, in some way, by the honoree—2011 is the first year the SFJAZZ Collective has paid tribute to an artist outside the purview of jazz. It has done so in the same year that others are similarly stretching, such as British arranger/big band leader Colin Towns, who's followed up large ensemble tributes to Mahavishnu Orchestra and trumpeter Miles Davis with a fine tribute to John Lennon, In My Own Write (Provocateur, 2011).

That said, Stevie Wonder is certainly a closer fit, given so much of his music has always possessed a clear harmonic connection to the jazz vernacular. And so, while last year's tour collected well-known songs from pianist Horace Silver, Live in New York Season 8: Music of Stevie Wonder culls some of the R&B/soul legend's most iconic songs, largely from his from 1972 to 1976 heyday, when he released a string of now-legendary Motown albums, starting with 1972's Music of My Mind and ending with the 1976 megahit Songs in the Key of Life .

Of the eight Wonder tunes here—ranging from trumpeter Avishai Cohen - Trumpet's episodic look at "Sir Duke"—so radically altered that only the barest trace elements remain—to alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon's revision of "Superstition" that, if not exactly literal, manages to collect the song's multiple threads, bringing them together in a near-endless series of permutations and combinations throughout its eleven-plus minutes—only two come from albums outside that golden period.

Trombonist Robin Eubanks—at fifty, the oldest member of a Collective whose average age has dropped almost every year since its inception—reinvents "Race Babbling," from 1979's Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (Motown). A swinging , mid-tempo intro leads to a set-defining solo from vibraphonist Stefon Harris, before a taste of the high-velocity, fusion-esque theme from Songs in the Key of Life's "Contusion" powers an equally impressive trombone solo, bolstered by pianist Edward Simon's brisk, Latinesque support. Eubanks' gritty multiphonics ultimately signal the return of the rest of the horns, a knotty but increasingly gentle coda bringing to a close one of set's best rearrangements, despite being sourced from an album that proved to be Wonder's first major career misstep.

SFJAZZ Collective, from left: Robin Eubanks, Avishai Cohen, Eric Harland
Mark Turner, Miguel Zenón, Edward Simon, Stefon Harris, Matt Penman

Another change with Music of Stevie Wonder is the incorporation of electronics into what has, traditionally, been an all-acoustic group. Cohen's processed trumpet is the featured voice on Harris' unexpectedly fiery look at "Visions," a dark ballad from Wonder's Innervisions (Motown, 1973). Bassist Matt Penman's rework of "Creepin,'" on the other hand, moves the song from Fulfillingness' First Finale (Motown, 1974) into even darker territory, another feature for Cohen—this time with an unaffected, muted horn—and again made stronger still through Simon's pliant support, before the tune turns to a more energetic end, with drummer Eric Harland pushing the pulse hard as Penman's arrangement moves further and further from its earlier balladic vibe.

Harland's rim shot sets the pace for Eubanks' aptly titled original, "Metronome," though it's not long before the trombonist's contrapuntal and syncopated writing leads into more complex territory of shifting tempo and meter, again sharing the solo space with Harris. In another reprise of the MO from "Race Babbling," Eubanks' solo sends the tune soaring into the stratosphere, this time with his processed trombone building to a breathtaking climax of multiphonics and otherworldly sounds that again signal the fundamental shift away from the SFJAZZ Collective's traditionally acoustic approach.

It's a shift that should come as no surprise to those familiar with the players' own work—in particular Harris' recent Blackout band and Urbanus (Concord, 2009), and Eubanks' outer-reaching EB3 trio and Live Vol. 1 (RKM, 2007). And while those only familiar with their work in the context of SFJAZZ— Zenón the only original member from the first season in 2004, Penman and Harland joining the next year, Harris and Eubanks in 2008, and Cohen, Simon and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner in 2009—may find this change to be a little more dramatic, the fact is that since its inception—when Joshua Redman was spearheading a group that also included a legacy artist of its own in vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson—the SFJAZZ Collective has been moving steadfastly towards increased modernity; one foot still firmly planted in the mainstream, to be sure, but taking material from John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and McCoy Tyner to places none of these admittedly forward-thinking icons could ever have imagined themselves.

Turner has long been a musician's musician, greater fame eluding him while those around him, such as guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and pianist Brad Mehldau, have achieved giant profiles. But what the greater jazz public is missing is also their loss; like Simon, Turner is a cerebral player with a heart, capable of creating nothing more than a conceptual context for group interaction with his own "Orpheus," while building lush, Gil Evans-style horn arrangements on a brighter, more emotive version of Wonder's "Blame It On the Sun," from Talking Book (Motown, 1972) where Harland takes the song out with a characteristically powerful and unfettered ostinato-driven solo.

While it's easy enough to assess the changes SFJAZZ Collective has wrought on Wonder's music, its own original material is no less compelling. This is also the first time that the recorded document hasn't been culled from across the entire tour; instead, these recordings come from a five-night run at New York City's Jazz Standard in the spring of 2011, where it's also clear that Harris acts as the group's spokesperson.

As much as each season uses a single honoree's music as the focal point—a selling point, even—for this gradually but inexorably evolving group, it's more about what its members bring to the table as composers, arrangers and players that's the real reason SFJAZZ Collective continues to be so successful. "Superstition" may groove with a joyously loose funk that even Wonder (a fine drummer, in addition to being an exceptional keyboardist/singer) couldn't match—and Simon's mammoth reading of "Ma Cherie Amour" may go positively nuclear at its midpoint, with Turner and Zenón engaging in a lengthy trade-off—but the pianist's "Young and Playful" is just as appealing, as Cohen's powerful solo leads to Simon's best feature of the set, as the tempo picks up and Penman and Harland swing mightily.

With a lineup that only has one member left from the original lineup, and a year-after-year change in personnel that, under any other circumstance, would prevent a group from establishing a unique identity, it's hard to believe that SFJAZZ even has one; but as strong as every individual has been throughout the Collective's eight-year history—and they're no less distinctive here—it's truly less about the individual and absolutely more about the concept of the collective that gives this group its enduring voice. With Live in New York Season 8: Music of Stevie Wonder, the SFJAZZ Collective demonstrates the ability to look beyond jazz for inspiration while still remaining true to its core concept. And as it strives to maintain an atmosphere of both consistency and flux, this stable lineup of two seasons benefits from what is, for SFJAZZ Collective, a rare opportunity to hone the strong relationships that may well make Live in New York Season 8: Music of Stevie Wonder its best year of music yet.

Tracks: CD1: Sir Duke; Do I Do; Family; Blame It On the Sun; Superstition. CD2: Race Babbling; Visions; Orpheus; Young and Playful; The Economy. CD3: Life Signs; Creepin'; Metronome; More To Give; Eminence; My Cherie Amour.

Personnel: Miguel Zenón: alto saxophone; Mark Turner: tenor saxophone; Avishai Cohen: trumpet; Robin Eubanks: trombone; Stefon Harris: vibraphone; Edward Simon: piano; Matt Penman: bass; Eric Harland: drums.

Photo Credit
Courtesy of SFJAZZ


SFJAZZ Collective: band/orchestra.

Album information

Title: SFJAZZ Collective: Live in New York Season 8 - Music of Stevie Wonder | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: SFJAZZ

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