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SFJAZZ Collective: Music of Stevie Wonder and New Compositions: Live in New York 2011, Season 8

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There are lots of advantages to a musical collective, at least the way such an entity is operated by SFJAZZ, the organization behind multiple inspired jazz initiatives in San Francisco. SFJAZZ Collective has an occasionally shifting lineup, sometimes gaining and losing high-profile members as they enter and exit other projects. The group regularly shifts its repertoire, having previously taken on the music of Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman and others. And the octet has the option of alternately sounding like a small combo or a little big band, an aptitude nicely displayed on last year’s release, featuring arrangements of Horace Silver compositions.

New season, same lineup, new material and new recording location for the Collective, founded in 2004 by Joshua Redman (not aboard this year). For the first time, the Collective salutes a pop composer, with eight engaging, often-surprising arrangements of Stevie Wonder tunes plus eight originals. The music, recorded over five nights at the Jazz Standard in New York City, again is spread across three discs and accompanied by an impressively designed booklet detailing the project and its participants.

Wonder’s music is inherently rich and elastic, as has been demonstrated by previous interpretations of his work, by jazz composers and others. The arrangements underscore that pliability, starting with a version of “Sir Duke,” arranged by trumpeter Avishai Cohen, that offers open space for drummer Eric Harland, brief figures by the horns, and bits of the melody voiced by vibraphonist Stefon Harris before shifting to solos and closing out with a long, funky jam. “Superstition” recasts the tune’s groove with greater syncopation, gives the melody to trombonist Robin Eubanks, and is spiked with sudden brass climaxes and full stops, with the piece’s arranger, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, cranking up the intensity. “Visions,” a beautiful ballad arranged by Harris, has the horns sounding the shifting tonal colors played by synthesizers on the original, and set closer “My Cherie Amour,” arranged by pianist Edward Simon, alternates brash brass splashes with quiet readings of the romantic melody.

The originals are impressive too, among them Cohen’s atmospheric “Family”; bassist Matt Penman’s grooving, harmonically complex “The Economy”; Eubanks’ “Metronome,” with its overlapping interlaced rhythmic figures; and Zenón’s sweet ballad “More to Give.”

Originally Published