Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Albert Brooks
A JazzApril story
“It’s always a good sign when a jazz band tunes up,” vibes master Stefon Harris playfully told us as Ricardo Rodriguez tried to get his bass to behave. It’s also a good sign because the musicians involved have bought into the concept they’re about to hit you with. And while tenorman David Sanchez was the catalyst that created both 90 Miles and the documentary that chronicled the band’s first iteration’s visit to Cuba, all three “co-leaders” that currently front this immensely powerful septet have complete and total buy-in.
Harold Lopez-Nussa’s torrid opener “E’cha” is Afro-Cuban goodness that comes right down the middle, and the band tore into it like a lion tucks into his evening gazelle. Harris’ vibes faced the full house at Massry, but he played marimba on the opening chorus before pianist Edward Simon dropped the first solo of the night. Simon – a band leader in his own right, whose new Sunnyside disc Live at the Jazz Standard will be required listening – wasn’t on his game when he and Harris helped SFJAZZ Collective salute Stevie Wonder at The Egg last year. On this night, though, Simon’s rising and falling solo was marvelously elaborate while maintaining the percussive element this music needs.
Harris wasn’t as sartorially “put together” as he usually is: His dress shirt’s collar button was undone, his pastel tie was at half-mast, and his show kerchief was a little too florid. That said, the look went perfectly with the enticing Latin sounds 90 Miles punched out as Harris took his first solo on vibes. There are moments where it seems all that matters to Harris is speed – one of them happened during his marimba solo on the following, expansive piece “And This Too Shall Pass.” For “E’cha,” though, the ideas came both big and small, but there was no denying any of them. Simon and the rhythm section worked a simple figure underneath Harris, with drummer Henry Cole adding just enough counter to make a contrast.
Nicholas Payton is the “new kid” on the block, replacing original trumpeter Christian Scott in 2012 – one NOLA royal-family member for another, and Payton was a wunderkind just like Scott. Decked in an outfit that can only be described as “formal hip-hop wear,” Payton aimed one long laser-tight note at the back row of the hall, and then pulsed it back down to earth. Payton’s not one of those players who wants to show you all his chops in the first five minutes; he saved plenty for his own composition “Backwards Step” and Harris’ rampant closer “Black Action Figure.” For the opener, Payton mirrored the powerful elegance Simon graced us with earlier. Sanchez had been standing behind percussionist Mauricio Herrera, dancing in place with a huge smile on his face before joining the rest of the band for the head.
When Sanchez knocked us all flat with the haunting, in-the-clear opening to his tone poem “The Forgotten Ones,” you could see why Harris would later call Sanchez “a total original.” One of the last gifts Dizzy Gillespie bestowed upon us before his passing, Sanchez’s solos never go where you expect them to, and they never really sound like they’re coming out of a tenor sax. They’re not inappropriate or misplaced; rather, they’re sounds that come from someone who cannot be shoehorned into whatever round hole you’d like to stuff him in. All night long, Sanchez was a man living his dream, square in the center of pure delight. During “Black Action Figure,” he squatted down by Herrera and beat out a figure on one of the congas. Herrera (whose opening bata solo on “And This Too” hypnotized us all) just smiled. After “Forgotten,” Harris gave us a glimpse of the teenage prodigy we’d all seen grow up when he said, “Man… I love music!”
Part of the fun of watching 90 Miles was playing “6 Degrees of SFJAZZ”: Payton was one of the Collective’s original members; Simon and Harris replaced original members Renee Rosnes and Bobby Hutcherson; and both Rodriguez and Cole have worked with SFJAZZ alto player Miguel Zenon. Part of the fun was also watching the co-leaders morph past material to fit this matrix – “Black Action Figure” comes from Harris’ muscular fusion band Blackout, while “Backwards” and “Forgotten” appeared on discs Payton and Sanchez released in 2008. And yet, the Afro-Cuban trappings given to each piece suited them inordinately well.
The big fun, though, was seeing the communication and the camaraderie between these players, and how much enjoyment they took from each other and this music. Harris made light of the concept when he told us, “You form a certain kind of kinship when you get up at 4 in the morning to go to the airport.” But when this group is on point (or, in Harris’ later, breathless words, “The muse is with us…”), they flow so fast and fly so high, and you feel privileged to breathe that same, rarified air. Chalk up another triumphant season-ender for Sal Prizio and Massry Center. Stay tuned for whatever brilliance will come in the fall.
Additional photographs by Albert Brooks at Albany Jazz