Given my well-documented geekery for all things Stevie Wonder, there was absolutely no way I was going to miss this latest edition of the SFJAZZ Collective. (I even had to forgo seeing my brothers and sisters of Groundfood & Snarky Puppy tear up Club Lambi - ah, the sacrifices we make.) The last time I saw the Collective was in 2009, on the McCoy Tyner run at the Metropolis. There have been a couple of personnel changes since: Avishai Cohen has assumed the trumpet chair from Dave Douglas; Mark Turner is on tenor, in place of Joe Lovano; and Edward Simon is now on the piano bench instead of Renee Rosnes. For the Canadian stretch of the tour, Kendrick Scott was subbing Eric Harland on drums, and the L'Astral hit was his first gig.
The first set started with Robin Eubanks' arrangement of Wonder's "Race Babbling," which kicked things off with a healthy dose of swing. Vibraphonist Stefon Harris carved out a deliberately bluesy statement before flying across his instrument. Scott has a broader sound on the drums and washier cymbals than Harland's precise and tight kit, creating an Elvin-like lope. A fragment of "Contusion" sent Eubanks off over a hybrid samba/songo groove. Cohen, like his sister Anat, is a charismatic presence onstage, trotting off behind the piano to dance behind Eubanks' solo. The whole adventure wound down with a beautiful chorale of "If It's Magic."
"Deliberate" is an adjective that came up frequently in my notebook. All the members of the Collective, but notably Turner, Harris, and Simon, have an almost architectural solo concept that came to the fore throughout the show. Harris' arrangement of "Visions" opened with a stark solo vibraphone intro, contrasting clean octaves with clusters that created the widest phasing effect I've ever heard from vibes. The blend between Harris and Simon evoked a massive Fender Rhodes. Gradually the vibes set up a very dense, repetitive figure, a much busier version of "Visions" than would necessarily suit my tastes. It's one of the strongest melodies and it seemed to get obscured. Scott was pushing Turner through his solo, which released into the gorgeous bridge of the tune.
Cohen's ballad, "Family," opened with another stunningly crafted solo introduction by Edward Simon over a G minor drone. I was so taken by the melody and its orchestration I stopped writing notes. Matt Penman took the microphone and introduced his own tune, "The Economy" in nearly flawless French. Described as a "tragicomic" affair, the tune is marked by a dark and biting unison line. The four horns scattered to the corners of the stage, playing an off-mic chorale, with Cohen seemingly playing into the piano. The drum solo was cleverly crafted as a call-and-response between the riff and Scott, which then exploded into assertive statements by Miguel Zenón and Simon.
The second set opened with Ed Simon's tune, "Young and Playful," which featured a strong Cohen solo (complete with a quote of "Peter and the Wolf") and some winks-and-nods at tumbao from Simon. Mark Turner's arrangement of "Blame it On the Sun" was next, tweaking the melody through some subtle rhythmic variations without fragmenting it too much. Scott was in lockstep throughout Zenón's solo, finding all the right holes to fill without ever getting in the way. Penman's version of "Creepin'" was suitably brooding, with a phenomenal Turner statement. The outro was delivered in a new, faster tempo with Zenón and Cohen trading. The set concluded with SFJAZZ's semi-viral hit, Zenón's arrangement of "Superstition." Scott, throughout the evening, took things in a more Latin direction than Eric Harland's hip-hop-informed interpretations, and it worked surprisingly well here. Eubanks dug in with another great turn.
There's been discussion about the fact that SFJAZZ has paid tribute to a non-jazz composer, such as Stevie Wonder. I would personally argue that Wonder is as much an influence on today's jazz composers as Kenny Wheeler, Wayne Shorter, or Monk. This edition of the Collective seemed to have a much more cohesive language among its members, both in terms of improvising and arrangement. Easily one of the standout gigs of the year that I have seen.