Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
I didn’t just see SFJAZZ Collective’s 2011 release “Music of Stevie Wonder and Original Compositions” as one of the best discs of last year; I also saw it as the gelling of the most experimental collection of musicians ever to fly SFJAZZ’s flag. That was the main reason why I was so psyched about the Collective bringing the Wonder tribute to The Egg… and why my heart started sinking about three minutes into the first number.
Thankfully, the drop was only temporary.
“My Cherie Amour” is the last track on the disc, and (in relative terms) it was also the weakest of the Collective’s efforts to bring Wonder further into the jazz genre. It’s got this weird, staggered meter that makes you think the song’s on a serial tape delay, and few minutes into the piece, not only was the crowd not getting into it, but the band seemed to be having problems finding the right gear.
This was reminiscent of SFJAZZ’s last stop in town, when their opening version of Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues” went from the song’s traditional groove into a dizzying free-jazz wormhole. That was both brave and thrilling, but the audience’s response was, essentially, “What the helllll…?” And that was definitely the case with this evening’s take on one of Wonder’s most famous love songs.
As I said, though, the band got the ship righted with the grooving “Visions” (from Wonder’s first real I’m-on-my-own release “Innervisions”), arranged by local legend Stefon Harris. There’s always a family-reunion feeing whenever the young vibes master comes back to town, be it with SFJAZZ or Blackout or one of his other projects, and Harris took time out after “Visions” to give a passionate, detailed shout-out to the Capitol Region.
“Success,” Harris told us, “is the manifestation of the hopes and dreams a community imparts on you.” Given the creative distance Harris has traveled in a relatively short time, the dreams he was fed must have been super-sized. His in-the-clear intro to “Visions” simply glowed, the notes echoing around the packed Swyer, and his solo on bassist Matt Penman’s arrangement of Wonder’s “Creepin’” demonstrated how technical prowess and blinding passion can co-exist in the same space and not make the result look like a collision between a cow and a bullet train.
“We ought to bring Stefon back home more often,” trombonist Robin Eubanks cracked. He wasn’t talking about Harris’ playing; he was making reference to the wild cheers the crowd were now giving both the Wonder arrangements and Collective originals, like Eubanks’ muscular “Metronome” and drummer Eric Harland’s prayerful “Eminence.” The latter tune broke the band down to a quartet, so most of the group watched from by the exit door while Edward Simon plucked piano strings by hand and Mark Turner bewitched us all with his uniquely elegant tenor sax.
Because his wife was having their first child, we didn’t get to see trumpeter/artistic director Avishai Cohen in action the last time SFJAZZ dropped into The Egg, but he more than made up for his previous absence at this show, knocking us all flat with the same kind of genius his sister Anat displayed in this same theater only a month earlier. His use of effects on “Visions” and the epic closer “Sir Duke” was right in keeping with Wonder’s music of the ’70s, and his work with the front line on the closing section of Harris’ “Life Signs” was like watching a ballet troupe do martial arts – beautiful to look at, but oh so deadly.
We did have one substitute on the team, but WHAT a substitute! Altoist Miguel Zenon is taking this tour off (He’ll be back in the line-up in the fall), but standing in for him at The Egg this time around was none other than “Mister” Antonio Hart.
I use quotes around “Mister” for two reasons: First, with his creased dress pants and beige sweater vest, this former young lion looked like a conservatory professor sitting in with his “A” lab band – most of whom were still trying to grasp how to dress for the stage. The second reason was that Hart hasn’t lost a single step, and his soaring blues-soaked solo towards the end of “Sir Duke” had everyone in the room slack-jawed, including the rest of the Collective. Memo to Bobby Valentine: That’s what a clutch pinch-hitter looks like!
The hiccup at the beginning aside, SFJAZZ Collective put a brilliant cap on the first weekend of Jazz Appreciation Month.
I know I’ve said that every month is Jazz Appreciation Month (mostly because it’s true), but now we’re in the period designated by the Smithsonian as the time to lionize America’s classical music. And while this area usually gets its fair share of jazz artists, we’ve got a tremendous line-up in store for us in the coming weeks: sax fiends Ravi Coltrane and Donnie McCaslin in separate shows at Massry Center; Wynton and Jason Marsalis visiting the area on the same weekend – Wynton at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall with Jazz @ Lincoln Center and Jason at the Van Dyck with his vibes project; Dead Cat Bounce brings Schenectady native Matt Steckler back home to Proctors; and we finish the month they way we started it – with a drop party by a local lion (in this case, Keith Pray).
I know gas prices are nasty nowadays, but I’ve got two words for that: Car pool. Do whatever you have to, but this is the wrong month to stay home!
More of Andrzej Pilarczyk’s photographs at AlbanyJazz
Michael Eck’s review at The Times Union
Rudy Lu’s photographs at AlbanyJazz
Excerpt from Matthew Maguire’s review at The Daily Gazette: “In reimagining the music of Stevie Wonder, the collective changed course to focus on a giant of soul and pop. The inspiration may be new, but the result was jazz at its highest levels: emotionally accessible, intellectually rigorous, and challenging to the octet, its soloists, and listeners. Before a full house of more than 450 listeners, the ensemble began its 115-minute set with one of Wonder’s more familiar hits, ‘My Cherie Amour.’ As arranged by pianist Edward Simon, the melody was immediately recognizable, but displaced notes and altered syncopation gave the tune a jagged feel and a refreshing update. Pianist Ed Simon’s solo sustained a pleasant, airy groove before tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and vibraphonist Stefon Harris, an Albany native, took harder-edged turns over more emphatic Latin-tinged rhythms. These solos set the tone for an evening of unwavering solo virtuosity.”