The SFJazz Collective is a rarity in many senses: an all-star group that rises above its concept to create and perform music that stands on its own; a leaderless (or multi-led) group of fantastic soloists that coheres into a group sound; a band paying homage to an iconic figure (in this case, McCoy Tyner) that retains their own identity. Tyner's presence, like Monk, looms so largely over his music - it demands a certain amount of his personalized vocabulary, without merely parrotting the trademark Tyner-isms. Pianist Renee Rosnes winked at the classic McCoy language and added her own personal take on the characteristic open fifths, quartal voicings and blistering pentatonic runs.
The concert began with Rosnes' arrangement of Tyner's "Fly Like the Wind." Opening with the lowest A on the piano, impressionistic flurries and a repeated phrase that got passed around the horns before leading into Rosnes' prelude and eventually the head, the arrangement signaled the type of reverent re-imagining of Tyner's music that would follow through the evening. Joe Lovano took the first solo, launching immediately into a double-time feel. At the arrangement's climax it collapsed back into the opening echo phrase, and ended on a resonant C major chord.
Trombonist Robin Eubanks' medley of Tyner's "Indo Serenade" and "Parody" followed. Drummer Eric Harland nailed the vaguely Latin, straight-eighth grooves framing these takes on Tyner's Milestone records from the 1970s. Eubanks parlayed "Indo-Serenade" into odd meters with metric trickery, while never losing the groove or drawing attention to the rhythmic intricacies. The call and response writing reminded me a bit of Guillermo Klein's work. Altoist Miguel Zenon and Eubanks took marvelous solos, with Harland performing a killing interlude into the 6/8 ending of "Parody."
Lovano's "Jazz Free" was a pun and comment on free jazz and truly exhibited the sensitive, empathetic listening going on in this group. The underlying elasticity of time, even when it wasn't stated outright, was reminiscent of Ornette Coleman, with a bass/drum interlude hearkening back to the intro of "Lonely Woman." The collective improvising never got cluttered, coalescing into a series of descending fifths while a soloist continued.
One of the highlights of the set was Dave Douglas' original "Sycamore," with a series of gorgeously simple melodies that effortlessly dovetailed into one another. I don't really have any more notes on this tune, because I was sitting there stunned and moved by the beauty of it. It was very much in the vein of his quintet book, but utilized the added colours of the SFJazz septet effectively. Douglas' playing was revelatory throughout the set - though I've heard him play in multi-horn groups (his Sextet records from the 1990s and early '00s for instance), I've never heard him lead a section's phrasing with such authority and empathy.
Zenon's arrangement of "Four by Five" opened with Harland's broken hip-hop feel and a cyclic repetition of a phrase before launching into a burning Dave Douglas solo in 4/4 swing. Bassist Matt Penman's arrangement of "Three Flowers" was highly inventive, with bass and piano playing the melody, trombone carrying the bassline, and the other three horns alternating between an accompaniment figure and collective blowing. It was subtle but completely effective at changing up the texture of the set. Harland's tune "E-Collective" ended the set with all four horns chanting the tala used throughout the piece, setting the groove that would continue - a nod to Harland's Indian rhythmic explorations alongside Charles Lloyd and Zakir Hussein.
Lovano's arrangement of "Aisha" served as the encore, with Douglas in cup mute. A simple, gracious nod of honour to McCoy and a fantastic parting gift to the audience.