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SFJazz Collective: SFJazz Collective

Joshua Redman

In the liner notes for the debut Nonesuch CD by SFJAZZ’s resident troupe, Artistic Director Joshua Redman admits he considered forming a classic repertory band like the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Jazz needs ensembles like that, but it already has several good ones. What it doesn’t have but desperately needs is an expanded combo with the funding to rehearse new compositions and new arrangements. Rehearsal time may be the rarest commodity in jazz and if an institution can finance three weeks of rehearsal for an album project, it will have provided the most valuable assistance of all.

That’s what SFJazz did for the SFJazz Collective. Redman and his bandmates-reedist Miguel Zenon, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, trombonist Josh Roseman, pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Robert Hurst, drummer Brian Blade and vibist Bobby Hutcherson-holed up in the San Francisco Jewish Community Center for much of February 2004 to rehearse Gil Goldstein’s arrangements of Ornette Coleman tunes and original compositions by the band. The octet held a residency in San Fransisco and then took the music out on a California tour. These live performances provide the content of SFJazz Collective, which features three Coleman numbers and four originals.

The benefit of all that rehearsal time can be heard in the music. These are not the typical blowing-session takes. These are true arrangements where a theme is introduced, altered, pitted against a second theme, supplanted by a third theme and later revived by different instrumentation, where the solos are set against counterpoint riffs and full ensemble sections alternate with duets and trios.

This music doesn’t have a mainstreamer’s fear of dissonance or funk, but neither does it have an avant-gardist’s fear of notation or lyricism. As such, it calls to mind the mid-’60s work of Charles Mingus, Andrew Hill and Sam Rivers, who integrated Ellington and Coleman, blues and chamber music, notation and free improv.

The album’s opening track, Zenon’s “Lingala,” was inspired by Zairean guitar music but is introduced by a short horn fanfare. That’s followed by a pulsing, Steve Reich-like theme from Hutcherson on the marimba, soon countered by a jagged theme from Rosnes’ piano. The marimba disappears, and the piano’s despairing turbulence is pitted against the optimism of the original horn figure. The horns restate that theme several different ways until they prevail and set up, more than three minutes into the piece, the first conventional solo.

Hutcherson, on vibes this time, is given nearly three minutes to explore the harmony in dizzying runs, but the piano trio behind him is constantly changing things up, and eventually the horns reenter to remind the soloist that he’s still part of a group. Something similar happens during Zenon’s alto solo, which begins as cool and lyrical as the marimba but ends up as agitated as the piano. The agitation reaches a fever pitch as Zenon is joined by a wailing choir of horns until they collapse in a swoon. The marimba reappears, repeating its hypnotic riff with the inexorability of daily life, and the original horn theme, sounding wearier and wiser now, is laid over the marimba.

This kind of arrangement, which is as concerned with a dramatic narrative as with musical balance, is typical of the album. Rosnes’ “Of This Day’s Journey” describes either a typical day or a full life. It evokes morning and/or childhood in a lovely, slow-waltz melody played by flute, then vibes. But a rambunctious, unaccompanied drum solo shifts the tune’s gears, and uptempo solos by the alto sax and piano introduce the hurly-burly of the working hours/adulthood. Evening/old age is represented not by a return to the waltz but by a midtempo theme that has the full octet weaving different lines into a majestic, satisfying harmony.

Redman’s “Rise and Fall,” by contrast, begins with the unsettling sounds of rattling percussion, barking and growling brass and warbling, Islamic reeds before finding a home in a lyrical, midtempo, soprano-sax melody. That melody, however, slowly but surely acquires the edge of a swinging, bluesy tenor solo and a nervous, abstracted piano solo before finally rediscovering the consolation of the soprano’s lyricism. Hutcherson’s “March Madness” is a tune so joyful that it builds to a trumpet climax, seems to end, then gathers its scattered forces for a second attack climaxed by a furious vibes solo over a bass line that doesn’t walk but sprints.

Ornette Coleman’s playing is so brilliant and idiosyncratic that it often obscures the virtues of his own compositions. Arranger Goldstein has detached “Peace,” “When Will the Blues Leave” and “Una Muy Bonita” from the sound of Coleman’s horn to reveal their melodic substance and blues roots. Goldstein emphasizes both these elements in narrative structures that obviously inspired both the writing and arranging of the four originals.

Redman and his colleagues have integrated Coleman’s lessons into premeditated structures as thoroughly as Mingus, Hill and Rivers once did and have created an album just as impressive as their mid-’60s gems.

Redman’s other new CD, Momentum, is the second with his Elastic Band. To appreciate this disc’s very real virtues, it’s necessary to approach it with the right expectations. This is not a jazz album with funk flavors; it’s a funk album with jazz flavors. This is the sound of Redman unleashing his inner Maceo Parker, playing the kind of grooves that Parker played with James Brown and Funkadelic-but with the kind of technical chops and harmonic knowledge that Parker never enjoyed.

This band’s first album, 2002’s Elastic, was conceived as an organ trio of Redman, Blade and keyboardist Sam Yahel playing all originals. Yahel is back, but this time he plays more synth and Rhodes than B3. Blade appears on just six of the 13 tracks, replaced by Jeff Ballard on six and by the Roots’ ?uestlove on the other. This time there are remakes of tunes from Led Zeppelin, Sheryl Crow and Ornette Coleman, four ambient-synth interludes and six originals. The trio expands at times to include such guests as Payton, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, vibist Stefon Harris and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea.

Momentum does not offer the broad scope of possibilities of a true jazz album, but within the narrower possibilities of an instrumental-pop record it is inventive and pleasurable. Redman, Yahel and their assorted partners prove you can sustain a powerful funk groove without hitting the same accents every time and that within such a groove you can make small but constant alterations to the melody, harmony and rhythm. Within its limited parameters, Momentum is better than 99 percent of the competition.

Originally Published