Hot venue on a Saturday night. Koerner Hall in its third season hosting yet another jazz spectacular. Can’t miss!
Yet there was room at the inn on Oct. 15, far too many seats vacant given the calibre of the visitors. It should have helped fringe fans decide to attend when half the music presented was based on the songs of prolific pop icon Stevie Wonder. Perhaps it’s the don’t-care attitude to jazz on the part of mainstream media hereabouts.
For serious jazz followers the SF Jazz Collective with its innovative repertoire has been leading the charge down one of many jazz-fostered highways of 21st century music-making since it was formed in 2004. The eight performers in the collective, whose personnel has slowly evolved over the years, decide annually to play new compositions “by a modern jazz master” and by themselves.
Some might well object that Stevie W is not on the same planet as previous honorees such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock – but what does that really matter. The concert was mostly splendid, more pleasing for jazzers rather than followers of the talent born Stevland Hardaway Judkins 61 years ago.
The atmosphere at first was studied, California cool, but the shrieking high notes of trumpeter Avishai Cohen soon dispelled the calm and proceedings began to heat up with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner duelling the exemplary pulse pals underpinning this sophisticated octet, drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Matt Penman.
The tune, which turned out to be Wonder’s Sir Duke, was rife with riffs and deep-layered ensemble playing, a factor all evening. This presentation, like the others, worked better when a soloist was deserted by colleagues who sidled reverently to the sides of the stage. Otherwise, you might easily think there was too much happening at once.
Vibraphonist Stefon Harris made an eloquent verbal case for the group’s reinvention of music before employing multiple mallets effectively and effortlessly on his instrument on every tune.
Alto saxist Miguel Zenon, one of those lucky McArthur Fellowship ‘genius’ recipients, provided a rich and yearning core for his tune More To Give while exceptionally fluent trombonist Robin Eubanks (who confessed at intermission that the Stevie suggestion came from him) was in stirring, raucous mode on his own Metronome though here as elsewhere there was much forward momentum but not enough swing for my taste.
Eubanks is an imaginative standout among his peers, working well – as did everyone – with veteran pianist Ed Simon, a skilled interpreter whatever the genre and complex compositional structure.
Recent Wonder track Creepin’ preceded a bizarre segment with soloists rambling then letting bass and drum noodling intervene. Didn’t work, in marked contrast to fire-and-brimstone takes on Stevie’s Superstition and an earlier pop classic whose every word is familiar but whose title stubbornly remains elusive.
It didn’t matter. This was an inspiring evening.