Sunday, February 01, 2009

SFJAZZ Collective On Tour

Last February, I caught the debut show in the SFJAZZ Collective's tour of their Wayne Shorter program in Portland. As noted in a couple of places on Jazz Chronicles I found the show wanting. It struck me as too brash and loud given the material being played, and several of the arrangements sounded cluttered.

But how could a band with this much talent – Stefon Harris, Miguel Zenón, Joe Lovano, Robin Eubanks, Matt Penman, Dave Douglas, Renee Rosnes and Eric Harland – sound less than stellar? I've already admitted that context might've had something to do with it (I left the SFJAZZ Collective show for a highly textured performance by Myra Melford's Be Bread that wound up being one of my favourite shows of the year), and it was the first show on the band's tour. Given that I have a ticket to see them in Ottawa on March 1 – for their new tour, playing a McCoy Tyner program – I thought I'd check out the recently released three-CD set of the 2008 tour, which is available only by mail order from SFJAZZ.

Notably, there are no performances from the Portland show; rather, it captures 17 pieces – nine Shorter compositions and one by each of the band members – recorded at eight concerts, beginning 11 shows after the Portland set I caught.

The band can still hit hard, befitting an octet with three brawny horns in the front line and a drummer as exuberant as Eric Harland, but these discs reveal a number of nuances, like the way the rhythm section dances lightly behind Eubanks' solo on Zenón's arrangement of "Armageddon." Lovano strikes a minimalist note on his approach to "Infant Eyes," painting light strokes on tenor with just Harland's brushes as accompaniment, and Douglas' "Secrets Of The Code" has the solo acerbic trumpet lead and suspended time you expect from him.

There are surprises, too, not the least of which is Douglas' arrangement of "Aung San Suu Kyi," the most recent of the Shorter compositions in the band's repertoire. While Shorter usually imbues the piece with mystery and performs it with dramatic, slashing shifts in dynamics, Douglas transforms it into a joyous celebration with allusions to New Orleans parade music.

Shorter purists may still balk at raucous interpretations like Rosnes' arrangement of "Footprints," but that's the price of turning personalities as strong as these loose on music filled with both inspiration and room for liberal interpretation.

Given the range of this band and its potential to unleash enormous energy, I'm looking forward to what lies ahead for the Tyner material – particularly if they dig into some of his rich catalogue from the early '70s.

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