“We are the SFJAZZ Collective, and none of us live in San Francisco,” Stefon Harris told the crowd at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre. The local hero added, giggling, “It’s too expensive!”
The octet of heavy hitters may have nothing to do with the Bay Area, but the group’s concept certainly does: SFJAZZ is one of the biggest music-related non-profits on the scene, with a years-long mission of bringing jazz to the people – primarily through the San Francisco Jazz Festival and various educational/outreach programs. But SFJAZZ also reaches out through recordings and tours by the Collective, which gives one giant of the genre the spotlight treatment every season: Wayne Shorter got the honor when the Collective played The Egg last year, and this time around the focus of their “second annual visit” was my favorite pianist of all time, Horace Silver.
Now, while this idea may sound like what Wynton Marsalis is doing downstate with Jazz @ Lincoln Center, JALC and the Collective are as different as… well, as the east coast and the west coast. Looking tres cool behind mirrored Wayfarer-style sunglasses, drummer Eric Harland opened the show with a dancing groove that led into “Senõr Blues.” The R&B flavor was a perfect fit for Silver’s classic, which had an easy urban vibe in its original form. What the original didn’t have was a soaring eight-way vocalization with a side of free jazz, which is where the piece went almost immediately after the first verse. The effect was like walking down a warmly-lit hallway and stepping into a nearby office – where you find the office is outside, thirty floors up, and the only available “floor” is the sidewalk at the base of the building.
Exhilarating? You bet! Unnerving? For anyone who expected rote readings of Silver’s catalog, no doubt! And now we come to the first major distinction between JALC and the Collective, which is basically the difference between indoctrination and exploration. A major paradigm shift like the one Harland’s arrangement contained would literally be considered sacrilege in Marsalis’ musical fiefdom. However, the Collective’s interpretive scope has widened appreciably in the last few years, to the point where launching a major directional change at the top of the show was not that big a surprise. So when the band found its way back to the original melody after a blade-sharp dialogue between tenorman Mark Turner and altoist Miguel Zenon, the crowd just considered it business as usual. The reaction was the same for pianist Edward Simon’s original “Collective Presence”, a masterful tone poem that confirmed (as if anyone doubted) that there wasn’t a player on stage who was less than fabulous.
That’s another way the Collective parts from JALC: In addition to interpreting part of the featured artist’s songbook, each Collective member must compose an original piece influenced by that featured artist. Zenon’s “The Mystery of Water” expertly combined Zenon’s Latin sensibilities with the African undertones in Silver’s music, and while the results were complex, they were also extremely satisfying. Zenon won the MacArthur genius Fellowship a few years ago (“So, ladies, he’s got some money,” Harris cracked), which surprised a lot of people who weren’t familiar with the Puerto Rico native’s work. I guess money does change everything, because Zenon’s instrumental and compositional skills have gone from great to beyond-the-stratosphere. It’s amazing that Turner is playing anywhere at all, given the horrific accident that endangered his career a few years ago. But there he was during “Presence,” playing lines reminiscent of Charles Lloyd with a Monk-like sense that he wasn’t settling for the notes anybody can play.
Simon and Turner were two of the four new members in the Collective’s revolving-door lineup, and that’s not including trombonist Luis Bonilla and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who were pinch-hitting for Collective members that couldn’t make this winter tour. Bonilla was a dead-solid perfect replacement for Robin Eubanks because both players attack their craft with a natural aggressiveness that transcends the instrument’s stereotype. Akinmusire was definitely the youngest man onstage, and you could occasionally see a look in the recent Blue Note signee’s eyes that said, “Am I really here?” Well, Harris said it best about Akinmusire: “He’s got skills, in case you were wondering.” Akinmusire’s solo lines on bassist Matt Penman’s arrangement of Silver’s “Sister Sadie” were both energetic and self-assured, while Bonilla’s tone on Penman’s multi-faceted original “Triple Threat” was infinitely rich.
The night closed with Simon’s take on “Song for My Father”, the piece that Harris said “made Horace Silver the most money.” Like all good jokes, it had truth on its side: “Father” is associated with Silver the way “Take Five” is associated with Dave Brubeck, which made playing “Father” a little more dangerous to play. Then again, the Collective hadn’t shown a lick of fear all night, so why start with the encore? Speaking as a longtime Silver devotee, they nailed it, and they made it their own in the process, giving Akinmusire the melody while Simon comped and filled. The closer earned the Collective their second standing ovation of the night, proving once again that exploration beats indoctrination every single time.
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
SFJAZZ COLLECTIVE SET LIST
The Mystery of Water
Cape Verdean Blues
Song for My Father