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On The Corner Masthead

Liner Notes: SFJAZZ Collective's "Original Compositions & The Music of Ornette Coleman, Stevie Wonder & Thelonious Monk"

April 24, 2018 | by Jesse Hamlin

Photo by Jay Blakesberg, artwork by Amy Woloszyn

Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón still recalls the electric feeling of playing Ornette Coleman’s unbounded music with the SFJAZZ Collective in 2004 — with the celebrated composer and alto saxophonist in the audience at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre for the octet’s auspicious debut.

Having the iconoclastic master on hand gave that inaugural performance an extra jolt of inspiration, says Zenón, who “tried to tap into that same well of energy” when he performed Coleman’s elastic, free-form music again in 2017 with the current edition of the stellar San Francisco ensemble. He unleashed a wild, free and impassioned solo on “School Work,” one of three Coleman numbers featured in this abundant two-disc live set (see album details).

Recorded over four nights at the acoustically refined SFJAZZ Center last fall, the collection pairs performances of compelling new pieces composed by each member of the current Collective — Zenón, bassist Matt Penman, pianist Edward Simon, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, drummer Obed Calvaire and trumpeter Sean Jones — with fresh versions of tunes by Coleman, Thelonious Monk and Stevie Wonder arranged over the years by various Collective members, past and present, for this exceptional ensemble of improvisers.

“The key is trying to pay homage to Ornette’s spirit and what he did while portraying your own personality,” says Zenón, the only musician in the octet who’s been in the band from the start. This past season, he had the pleasure of revisiting Collective arrangements he originally played with the great musicians who wrote them and bringing them to life anew with the distinctly different voices of these prime instrumentalists. They’ve achieved a rare rapport in recent years that gives their music a richness, subtlety and spontaneous combustion that draws you in and makes you move, playing at times with the delicacy of chamber group or wailing like the Basie band.

The “retrospective” disc here includes pleasing new performances built on loose arrangements of Coleman’s tunes that Gil Goldstein crafted for the band’s inaugural year (“Una Muy Bonita,” “When Will the Blues Leave”), and winning numbers that Joshua Redman and Dave Douglas wrote for the 2007 season highlighting Monk’s marvelously quirky music. We hear Redman’s lean and funky arrangement of Monk’s “Bye-Ya” and two by Douglas: a lovely orchestration of the ballad “Reflections,” with its muted horn harmonies and a melancholy-tinged Jones trumpet solo, and a popping arrangement of “Criss Cross” notable for its bopping horn-section soli and joyously raucous improvised polyphony.

Then there’s the grooving arrangement of Wonder’s classic “Superstition” Zenón wrote for the band in 2011, when Penman shaped this beautiful version of Wonder’s “Creepin” with soft, sumptuous harmonies and pastoral melodies, seamlessly balancing solos and ensemble.

“It was cool to play those charts, because you could trace the development of the band,” says Zenón, who was also inspired, as always, by the new works the Collective musicians composed for the band, whose expressive range grows by the year.

The new compositions include Calvaire’s “Soundless Odyssey,” a gentle, sensuous piece with graceful reed-and-brass phrases floating and dancing above the soft thrumming of Calvaire’s drums and the ring and echo of Wolf’s vibe. Penman plays a singing bass solo over a repeated piano figure that brings the Beatles to mind. Eubanks’ polyrhythmic “Perseverance,” with its clashing and merging horn parts and double-timed locomotion, sets off rousing solos by Sánchez and the trombonist.

Those trilling, murmuring patterns that phase in and out of and around each other in Zenón’s atmospheric “Tidal Flow” are some of the sounds he created to musically express something he’d been pondering: “Gravity, the Earth’s gravity, and how that’s reflected in the tides,” the composer explains. “I wanted something that sounded together, but not, with the melody flowing on top. The horns are floating around the same space, but not in synch.”

Simon’s intriguing “Venezuela Unida,” a tapestry-like work built with hypnotically repetitive ostinatos, morphing textures and metric shifts, “shows the influence on me of Minimalist composers like Steve Reich,” says the Venezuelan-born pianist and composer, who joined the Collective in 2010. The short improvised interludes by the various players “are not solos in the traditional sense we define them in jazz, but rather something that adds to the texture.”

After years of close collaboration, “we know how to write for each other,” Simon says. “You can really hear it in everybody’s writing. With all these great players, you can’t resist the temptation to explore all these sounds and possibilities. We know each other’s capabilities and limitations, and we make the most of those.”

The evidence is on these vital tracks, which capture one of jazz’s great ensembles in the heat of live performance.