SFJAZZ Collective: Ottawa, Canada March 1, 2009

John Kelman By

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'Consensus' was a marvelous, horn-driven modal piece that, like the rest of the performance, avoided direct imitation and spoke directly to the spirit of Tyner
SFJAZZ Collective
Dominion-Chalmers United Church
Ottawa, Canada
March 1, 2009

It was a stellar weekend for jazz in Ottawa, Canada. First, on Saturday, February 26 fans were treated to an intimate but outstanding evening of music by local bassist John Geggie and his guests, guitarist Vic Juris and drummer John Fraboni. Then, the following evening, the SFJAZZ Collective made its first appearance in town (sponsored by the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival), with one of its strongest line-ups ever—saxophonists Joe Lovano (tenor) and Miguel Zenón (alto); trumpeter Dave Douglas; trombonist Robin Eubanks; pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland.

SFJAZZ Collective Rosnes, Eubanks, Douglas, Penman, Lovano, Harland, Zenón

There's a running joke within the group, according to Penman, since none of the group's members are from San Francisco anymore. This revamped SFJAZZ Collective may maintain the core premises of the collective founded by saxophonist Joshua Redman and executive artist director Randall Kline at the turn of the decade, but by consisting entirely of died-in-the-wool New Yorkers now, the group has taken on a different complexion since its first tour in 2004—edgier and, alongside its thoughtful and challenging arrangements and compositions, more open-ended as well.

Each year, the collective convenes to pay tribute to the music of a different jazz legend. Past years have seen each member of the group, in addition to writing a piece of his/her own, contribute arrangements of music by Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. The 2009 edition of the group honors seminal pianist McCoy Tyner, and this year's line-up couldn't be a better choice to pay tribute to an artist who helped define a specific harmonic language and bring a visceral energy to his own music and that of his employer, during his protracted, thoroughly documented role as the pianist in Coltrane's most admired quartet during the early-to-mid 1960s. Without a vibraphonist (first Bobby Hutcherson, then Stefon Harris) for the first time in its career, the collective capitalizes on the absence of the lighter, "cooler"-sounding instrument and has reinvented itself as a unit with a much more heated, meaty sound.

With seven Tyner arrangements and seven original compositions, the group has plenty to choose from in building a 90-minute program that varies from night to night. Opening with a suite that tied together Tyner's "Fly with the Wind" (arranged by Rosnes), "Indo-Serenade" and "Parody" (both arranged by Eubanks), this edition of the sextet immediately differentiated itself with a freer and more hard-hitting approach that was definitely New York in vibe. Far more than simple "heads" with plenty of solo space, these were often complex arrangements, with solos integrated in a mini-big band context but one in which there's freedom to move, but with almost invariably an underlying structure or, if not that, a premise from which to start. Lovano blew the first knock-down, drag-out solo of the evening, his deep tone and plaintive screams in vivid contrast to the more cerebral yet still evocative Zenón, whose own music often combines head and heart. Solos passed effortlessly from musician to musician, making each more a part of the overall arrangement than discrete entities, though with musicians of this caliber, there's no denying the individual virtuosity at play.

But it was (and is) a collective, and the elegant energy of the arrangements was so pervasive that there was barely time to catch breath before the next compelling moment arose. With each member of the collective a leader in his/her own right, working in a group such as this frees the principals from the normal responsibilities of running a band/project, allowing them to think less and play more. The result was an endless run of outstanding solos, but particularly potent turns by Douglas, Eubanks and Zenón on the altoist's lyrical but energetic closer, "No Filter." Douglas' tender "Sycamore" provided a brief respite, especially after Lovano's aptly titled "Jazz Free," which combined completely open-ended group improvisation with a challenging arrangement, even as solos were passed around liberally. Matt Penman's solo, a combination of Charles Mingus-like aggression and more delicate melodicism, was especially notable, providing clear evidence why, in such a a brief period of time, he's made it to the "A" list of younger New York bassists, alongside Drew Gress, Scott Colley, FLY and Christian McBride.

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