How were we to know that Portland would be the first audience to hear SF JAZZ Collective’s interpretation of the great Stevie Wonder, who as vibes man Stefon Harris says, “played the sound track of my life.”
The octet, composed of hot instrumentalists and elegant composers, blew the audience away Saturday at Portland’s Newmark Theatre during the last weekend of Portland Jazz Festival’s “Bridges and Boundaries: Jewish and African-Americans Playing Jazz.
As promised, these eight guys played complex, ear-titillating arrangements of Stevie Wonder songs, along with own new compositions. Each year, the group focuses on a significant jazz composer, though genre-bending Wonder’s work will be featured in both 2011 and 2012.
In previous years SF JAZZ Collective has interpreted the work of jazz giants John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Thelonius Monk, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, and most recently hard-bop pianist Horace Silver. The group produces a two- or three-CD package each year. Wayne Shorter interpretations (2008) is the best-seller up to this point, but who knows what will happen with ever influential crossover king Stevie Wonder? His music lures lots of younger fans as Saturday’s concert proved. Who doesn’t know Stevie Wonder’s music (Obama loves him too!)? Which jazz musician hasn’t been influenced by him?
The knock-out opener was Venezuelan-born pianist Ed Simon’s lovely arrangement of “My Cherie Amour,” which featured his cerebral playing but gave plenty of space to the other musicians. The piece went on for 20 minutes, after all. Vibes musician Stefon Harris’s take of Wonder’s “Visions” followed, and then came “Triple Threat,” an original composition by New Zealand-born bassist Matt Penman, which gave alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon a hoppin’ solo.
I loved tenor saxophonist Mark Turner’s laid-back “Brother and Sister, Two” (“there must be a One somewhere,” Cohen joked). Turner, who was in a nasty accident, took off and put back on a black glove to keep his left hand warm (reverse of Michael Jackson) between pieces. Still the disrobing of the very plain black glove (Harris said it should have some bling, but hey, this is jazz, not pop we’re listening to) ) didn’t appear to interfere with is soulful playing.
Zenon’s rousing rendition of Wonder’s “Supertsition” was the closer. Zenon, the longest member of the band launched by the nonprofit institute SF JAZZ in 2004, kept his cool like the well-mannered ensemble leader he is throughout the set, but when “Superstition” unfolds, he let any inhibitions go. And can he play? Yes, like a madman. And arrange? Yes, to that, too.
The collective passed around the microphone and kept the music and its presentation democratic, though vibes wizard Harris is the guy who likes to talk. Trumpeter Aivashi Cohen and trombonist Robin Eubanks have astoundingly good horn chemistry (both during serious music-playing and onstage ribbing) though their arrangements weren’t featured.
You’ll have to wait for the new CD, yet to be recorded to hear each of these star soloists and composers pull out all the stops on Wonder and his wonderful music.