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SFJAZZ Collective: Ottawa, Canada, October 13, 2011

John Kelman By

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SFJAZZ Collective
The Music of Stevie Wonder
Centrepoint Theatre,
Ottawa, Canada
October 13, 2011

In its eight-year existence, the SFJAZZ Collective has gone from triumph to triumph, each year choosing a specific artist to honor—past years including pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonists Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter—and giving each of its eight members the mandate of coming up with a new arrangement and a new composition, making the Collective the best kind of jazz laboratory; one where the heroes of the past are celebrated alongside these relatively young icons in the making.

The 2011 edition of this gradually changing collective—only alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon remains from the inaugural 2004 season—paid tribute, for the first time, to an artist outside (though certainly informed by) the jazz purview, Stevie Wonder. The source music for the Collective's return to Ottawa on October 13, 2011 may have been distanced considerably from its 2009 Ottawa performance—when a substantially different lineup performed its homage to McCoy Tyner—but the below-capacity but enthusiastic crowd at Centrepoint Theatre would have been hard-pressed to tell the difference.

That's because this was no get-down, shake-your-booty look at the music of Stevie Wonder, though there were grooves aplenty—delivered, this time, by drummer Kendrick Scott, who was substituting for regular drummer Eric Harland on eight of the fall tour's thirteen US and Canada dates. But if the coda to trumpeter Avishai Cohen - Trumpet's radical reinvention of "Sir Duke" was enough to get everyone in the audience's heads bopping, it's a fair bet most of them didn't even notice the extra beat being tagged onto every fourth bar, or how it seemed to magically interlock when the horns began playing the familiar chorus ("You can feel it all over...") over top of it, in straight time. And for those already familiar with the new tunes and arrangements on the Collective's recently released Live in New York Season 8: Music of Stevie Wonder (SFJAZZ, 2011), it was clear that the music was a living, breathing, evolving thing, as vibraphonist Stefon Harris playfully stretched and contracted the time of another of the song's familiar themes, keeping the rest of the Collective on its toes.

This incarnation of SFJAZZ Collective represents the first time that there's been no change in the lineup since the previous year, when it paid tribute to pianist Horace Silver, documented on Live 2010: 7th Annual Concert (SFJAZZ, 2010). A consistent lineup may mean more opportunity to hone its chemistry, but the Collective has always managed change well; with its lineup changing gradually, year-after-year, there was always some residual chemistry while achieving, at the same time, the best possible sound of surprise, from the introduction of someone new to the mix.

This may have only been Scott's second date, but he nailed it from the get-go, while bringing a different kind of energy to the music that changed the complexion of the Collective. This isn't the first time he's followed in Harland's footsteps, either—replacing the barely-older drummer in trumpeter Terence Blanchard's band at the time of Flow (Blue Note, 2005)—but if that suggests Scott's some kind of second-stringer, waiting in the wings like an actor's stand-in, nothing could be further from the truth, on the basis of the 31-year-old's leader debut, The Source (Word Culture Music, 2007), and subsequent work with trumpeter Sean Jones, saxophonist Myron Walden and singer Gretchen Parlato.

If Scott was the fire in the engine room, then bassist Matt Penman was the engineer keeping that fire stoked. A masterful player, he held down the shifting landscape of Zenon's second set-closing arrangement of Wonder's "Superstition," which deconstructed the tune down to its fundamental motifs, rebuilding them in various permutations and combinations, for a reading as fiery as it was cerebral. Penman's unshakable time was balanced by thoughtful solos, in particular his pizzicato work on tenor saxophonist Mark Turner's "Orpheus," a heady composition that created a variety of contexts for inspired free play that gradually coalesced into a form only truly revealed at its conclusion.

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