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Monday, March 14, 2011
Cover of Stefon HarrisSFJazz Collective takes on Stevie Wonder: review
It takes a brave soul to tackle the music of Stevie Wonder. The latest incarnation of the SFJazz Collective happens to contain eight of them.
Having taken on jazz titans like John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk in the past, the group, which played at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre on Friday as part of the SFJazz Spring Season, picked an equally challenging target for its first foray into the pop world.
"We are celebrating the music of one of my great, great heroes," said vibraphonist Stefon Harris. The Grammy-nominated New York musician recalled listening to Wonder's 1976 masterpiece, "Songs in the Key of Life," five times in a row as a kindergartener: "That's when I knew I had a passion for music."
With a blast of horns and a skitter across the vibraphone's bars, intimidation quickly gave way to experimentation at the Herbst. The ensemble features the same lineup for the second year running - Harris, drummer Eric Harland, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, bassist Matt Penman, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Edward Simon, trumpeter Avishai Cohen and trombonist Robin Eubanks.
Together they offered four distinct, loose-limbed adaptations of some of Wonder's best-known tunes alongside several original compositions by the individual band members.
The voluptuous melody of the Wonder-penned set opener "My Cherie Amour" was pulled apart and served up in an expansive jam that saw Zenón spitting back notes and Harland drawing out a maniacal groove while his head tilted back some 90 degrees.
Penman issued a dark-hued deconstruction of Wonder's "Creepin,' " while Turner retained just a few familiar chord changes amid the rousing fanfare of "Blame It on the Sun." Zenón, meanwhile, a Puerto Rican-born musician who studied at Boston's Berklee College of Music, was responsible for the Caribbean influence on the night's most faithful cover, "Superstition." He said he "put a little rice and beans and plantains into it."
The ensemble's sense of adventure spilled over into the new pieces, which veered from Harris' buoyant tribute to his 2-year-old son, "Lifesigns," to the Israeli-born Cohen's meditative, minimalist encore number, "Family." Brave doesn't really begin to describe it.
The collective serves as the house band for SFJazz, the long-running arts organization that also programs the San Francisco Jazz Festival and Summerfest, along with a host of educational services.
The spring season calendar is highlighted this year by jazz guitarist Marc Ribot, playing a live soundtrack score for Charlie Chaplin's classic 1921 film "The Kid" on Wednesday at YBCA Forum; Randy Newman performing a rare solo concert at Davies Symphony Hall on April 22; and 84-year-old Tony Bennett revisiting some of his biggest hits at the same venue on May 28.