SFJAZZ Collective, “Live: SFJazz Center 2013” (CD review)

(originally published in JazzTimes)

SFJAZZ Collective, “Live: SFJazz Center 2013 — The Music of Chick Corea & New Compositions” (SFJAZZ)

With its latest ambitious recording, the San Francisco-based SFJAZZ Collective celebrates another great composer (the group’s modus operandi), a new venue and a new addition to the band. Two years ago, the Collective saluted the music of Stevie Wonder with a release recorded over five nights at Jazz Standard in New York City. For its 11th release, a two-CD set, the octet, with new Miami-born drummer Obed Calvaire in tow, swings back to a jazz composer, the pianist and bandleader Chick Corea. The occasion: a four-night run in March 2013 that constitutes the first recorded performances at the Robert N. Miner Auditorium at the SFJAZZ Center, the multimillion standalone jazz complex that serves as the group’s home base.

Corea’s acclaimed Latin-tinged pieces are here in fresh, robust versions, starting with the disc-one opener, a take on “Spain” arranged by Venezuelan-born pianist Edward Simon, who offers a slow, moody reading of the theme before handing it off to vibraphonist Stefon Harris; the piece intensifies with solos during the samba section before returning to its beginning theme. In a similar vein, on the same disc, is “La Fiesta,” arranged by Puerto Rican-born saxophonist Miguel Zenón, who effectively shuffles the original order of the high-contrast sections. Bassist Matt Penman lays down the flamenco groove, giving rise to Zenón’s soaring alto solo and some rhythmic derring-do from Calvaire, in tandem with Harris and Penman.

Familiar Corea gems are on disc two, too—Harris’ tricked-out, multi-tiered arrangement of “500 Miles High,” its melody given a creative remixing, and Puerto Rican-born tenor saxophonist David Sánchez’s air-hanging take on the gorgeous ballad “Crystal Silence,” led by vibes and later incorporating brass-choir textures and open space for piano. Impressive originals figure in the mix, too, including Harris’ mellow “Let’s Take a Trip to the Sky”; trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s long “Home Is,” inspired in part by music from his native Israel; Penman’s rambunctious, color-shifting “Vegan Las Vegas”; trombonist Robin Eubanks’ funk-grooving “Shifting Center”; and Zenón’s multi-segmented “Grand Opening,” written in commemoration of the SFJAZZ Center’s opening.

 

SUNDAY JAZZ JOURNAL — Stefon Harris Talks Ninety Miles

(an alternate version of this story appears in The Gainesville Sun)

Note: Ninety Miles plays April 24 in Hampton, VA, April 26 in College Park, MD, and April 27 in Gainesville, FL

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ninety milesThe art of improvisation, of course, is at the heart of jazz.

Typically, a jazz musician will take a standard tune or an original composition, play the form and then solo over the piece’s chord changes. Each time through, there can be a variation to the arrangement, and slight or major rhythmic redesigns. And, ideally, each performance of a song will feature entirely different lines and passages during the solo section.

But sometimes an entire recording project can amount to an act of improvisation.

That’s how it felt to Stefon Harris, the acclaimed New York vibraphonist and classically trained percussionist who was tapped in 2010 to put together the Ninety Miles band with Puerto Rican-born saxophonist David Sanchez and trumpeter Christian Scott, a New Orleans native.

The CD, “Ninety Miles,” named for the distance between Miami and Havana, was suggested by producers at Concord, the label home to all three musicians. The success of the project depended on their ability to take a general concept and improvise on it – go to Cuba, connect with Cuban musicians, see what happens.

“Having an idea come from someone else sometimes challenges you in ways you can’t imagine for yourself,” Harris said by telephone. “I hadn’t really had a chance to play with them. I had never been to Cuba before, and I was excited to have that type of artistic and musical exposure. But there was a great deal of unpredictability even in the process of making the record.”

The challenges included gathering the documents required to travel to Cuba, with whom the United States has had a notoriously strained relationship for decades, largely in response to the Caribbean country’s repressive policies toward its citizens.

“The day before going, we weren’t even sure we were going to go,” Harris said. “When we got down there I didn’t even have a vibraphone. The unpredictability extended to not knowing what we were going to do with the band. I didn’t know the Cuban musicians, and had never seen them play. So I went on Youtube and listened to a couple of clips, then I chose some players and composed music that I thought would be open and flexible. It all worked to create an atmosphere of great creativity.”

The two-disc CD was released in 2011 on the Concord Picante label, which is largely focused on Latin jazz recordings. But the music, including compositions by musicians from both countries, doesn’t strictly fit that classification: elements of hard bop are intermingled with blues, funk-driven grooves and, of course, Montuno patterns and a variety of Latin percussion.

The group has morphed somewhat since 2010, with Scott last year replaced by Grammy-winning trumpeter Nicholas Payton, coincidentally also raised in New Orleans. The septet, whose performance at last summer’s Montreal Jazz Festival was a highlight of my trip to that fest, includes an international rhythm section – pianist Edward Simon was born in Venezuela, bassist Ricardo Rodriguez and drummer Henry Cole both hail from Puerto Rico, and percussionist Mauricio Herrera is a native of Cuba.

A live disc, “Live at Cubadisco,” recorded at a concert in Havana shortly after the original sessions, was released last year, and a documentary on the project year was picked up for distribution by BBC Worldwide.

The band’s recordings, Harris said, inevitably may be seen by some as a political statement.

But he views Ninety Miles as strictly a cross-cultural musical project, and hopes to take the concept – musical collaboration in the face of political and cultural barriers – to other locales.

“I’m hoping that we’re sonically demonstrating the benefits of empathy and we’re showing that there’s not much of a divide (between people),” he said. “We all know love, we all know fear, we all know greed, we all know compassion. I don’t play music just because it’s fun and it feels good. Music is ultimately about far more than notes and tones.”

The Blue Note 7: Mosaic

Blue Note Celebrates Its History … Again

A band organized by Blue Note, specializing in music from that label’s archives?

Déjà vu, anyone?

Blue Note’s New Directions Band, with the storied jazz label’s young stars — alto saxophonist Greg Osby, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, pianist Jason Moran and vibraphonist Stefon Harris — joined by bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, was just such a group.

New Directions, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the label, recorded a self-titled CD in 1999, and released it early the next year.

The band gave a significant boost to the careers of its members, several of whom obviously have notched considerable artistic and commercial success. I caught one performance on the group’s national tour, at a tiny, smoky, now-defunct club in Ybor City (Tampa).

Blue Note, too, has celebrated itself with countless concerts, films, sampler recordings, and other products.

The Blue Note 7 Launches

Now here comes The Blue Note 7, a band suggested by booking agent Jack Randall, and organized by Randall, pianist Bill Charlap, and talent manager Danny Melnick, as a way to celebrate the label’s 70th anniversary.

blue-note-71

“When plans for the extensive tour reached more than 50 American cities, the idea of a recording was inevitable,” according to jazz critic Ira Gitler’s liner notes for the group’s just-released CD, Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records.

 

The septet, this time not a group of upstarts, includes a stellar front line of horn players — celebrated New Orleans-bred trumpeter Nicholas Payton, underappreciated New York alto saxophonist and flutist Steve Wilson and tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, still laboring to escape the shadow of his famous father.

Charlap, the musical director, is joined by rhythm-section mates Peter Bernstein on guitar, Peter Washington on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums – solid pros and creative players, all.

The material, variously arranged by band members and pianist Renee Rosnes (who happens to be married to Charlap), emphasizes compositions recorded for Blue Note from the mid-’50s through the mid-’60s.

Melnick, the CD’s executive producer, is head of the company producing the band’s tour. So is The Blue Note 7 an organically assembled outfit, or merely a sampler recording designed to promote a tour and boost sales of the label’s new and archival recordings?

Gitler writes, “It is more than a tribute band, a cadre with a cohesive compatibility, dealing with powerful music and reinterpreting it through new arrangements and individual solos.”

Mosaic

That assessment rings true, as the music on Mosaic is familiar (maybe overly so) but almost fresh — the band builds interesting new arrangements and consistently superb solo work on gems by major jazz composers. Thelonious Monk’s “Criss Cross,” arranged by Wilson, comes with new rhythmic twists, a spiky Coltrane solo and aptly rambunctious piano work.

Payton’s playing is particularly incisive and poignant on a floating-to-grooving version of Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance,” arranged by Rosnes, also responsible for a soaring arrangement of McCoy Tyner’s pretty, slow-moving “Search for Peace”; the horn players on the latter come off as a brass choir. Bernstein turns in warm melody work and a searching improvisation on his arrangement of Duke Pearson’s “Idle Moments,” originally recorded by Grant Green.

The title track, penned by Cedar Walton for the Jazz Messengers and arranged by Nash, lifts off with the drummer’s tricky rhythmic set-up. The tune later offers the kind of driving, chunky swing and extended trap-set wizardry sure to warm the heart of anyone who’s ever loved hard bop and lamented its passing (that includes me).

Also included in the eight-song set: Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge,” arranged by Payton; Bobby Hutcherson’s “Little B’s Poem” (Wilson); and Horace Silver’s “The Outlaw” (Charlap).

Blue Note 7’s U.S. Concert Trek

The tour is off to an impressive start, according to jazz critic Doug Ramsey’s report on the band’s performance in Seattle. “…the little time they have spent as a unit is out of proportion to the ensemble’s spirit and unified sound,” Ramsey writes.

(Sadly, the tour itinerary doesn’t include any Florida dates).

Will this band continue working together after its weeklong engagement at New York’s Birdland, which concludes April 19?

Yes, as Charlap relates in the above video clip.

“We’ll be continuing later in the year, in the fall, in Europe,” he says. “Many of the players are already writing new arrangements. … Perhaps there will be a volume two and a volume three. I would not be surprised if that happens.”

Letter to Obama: Let Great Jazz Into Your Inauguration Festivities

jazz-for-obamaDear President-Elect Obama:

The word on the street is that you like jazz, you really like jazz.

You became hip to the music, African-Americans’ great gift to the world’s arts culture, back in junior high school, when you still wanted to be called “Barry.”

In fact, once when you visited a record store with a friend from your Honolulu prep school, you stayed close to the jazz bins. “Barry was into things that other kids our age weren’t into. He went through the entire jazz section while we were there,” said your old pal Dean Ando, according to one newspaper feature.”That affects me to this day — he’s the one who introduced me to jazz.”

Did you dig real jazz, with genuine musical content, by creative players with an understanding of the tradition but with eyes on the future? Or were you keen on some variety of jazz lite? Who knows? But I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Your iPod playlist, which may or may not have been assembled by your staff to appeal to the Baby Boomers whose support you needed during the general election (hence Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, etc.), even includes tracks by jazz geniuses Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.

Miles and Coltrane, too, lead the artists named under the category of “favorite music” on your Facebook page.

Yes, those are pretty obvious jazz picks, and they’re all dead. Still, listing those artists is far more impressive than, you know, listing Kenny G. or the Rippingtons or some other such wallpaper-jazz nonsense.

I’ve not heard whether you ever visited the Green Mill, Chicago’s jazz mecca, while you were based in the Windy City.

Still, there are other signs that you may well support jazz during your White House residency.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” you had this to say: “Thinking about the diversity of our culture and inviting jazz musicians, and classical musicians, and poetry readings in the White House so that once again we appreciate this incredible tapestry that’s America, you know, that, I think, is going to be incredibly important, particularly because we’re going through hard times.”

While, as far as I can tell, you’ve not recently given props to any important living jazz artists — not even trumpeter Wynton Marsalis or pianist Herbie Hancock? — many major figures in the jazz community have gone out of their way to support you.

Did you hear about the “Jazz for Obama” concert in New York on Oct. 1? Did you attend?

A long list of front-rank jazz artists, black and white, opted to wear their politics on their shirtsleeves for a night in the name of helping you win the election. The performers: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Joe Lovano, Roy Haynes, Brad Mehldau, Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, Stanley Jordan, Kurt Elling, Hank Jones, Charlie Hunter/Doug Wamble, Bilal/Robert Glasper, Stefon Harris, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Roberta Gambarini.

Thanks to a column by Ottawa Citizen music writer Peter Hum, I was reminded of the following examples of major jazz musicians’ overt support of you:

  • Hancock lent his name and musical cred to the “Yes We Can” video supporting your candidacy
  • Pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Dave Douglas, at last year’s Chicago Jazz Festival, dedicated new works to you.
  • Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and many other prominent jazzers have displayed your face and message on t-shirts they’ve worn on stage.
  • Hundreds, if not thousands, of jazz musicians, have used their Facebook and MySpace pages to demonstrate support for you.

Yes, all these jazzers were for you, and presumably still are. But are you really for jazz?

I’m asking, because of some rather disappointing news.

So far, the only notable musical artists reportedly invited to play your 10 official inaugural balls are, you know, big-name folks.

Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand and Bruce “Super Bowl Half-Time Show” Springsteen are said to have been asked to appear at official inauguration events on Jan. 20, and the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus are expected to headline an official kids-oriented show on Jan. 19.

Some of these are inspired choices; others, not so much.

Yes, your associates have coordinated a Jan. 20 event called ” ‘A Time For Hope’ 2009 Presidential Inaugural Jazz Gala.”

But the musicians selected for the event, despite being described as “global jazz artists,” are not well-known players. What’s up with that?

Since you self-identify as African-American, and since jazz is rooted in black culture, may I suggest that you use your great power to include MAJOR jazz musicians — black, white and Hispanic — in your inauguration festivities?

After you move into the White House, you ought to regularly invite jazzers over to your place, too.

Any of the above-mentioned artists, including Marsalis and Hancock, and pianist Hank Jones (part of that “Jazz for Obama” concert), a brilliant elder statesman of jazz, would make great choices.

So would veteran saxophonist Sonny Rollins, arguably the greatest living jazz performer, and now enjoying critical plaudits for his recent concerts and latest CDs, including last year’s Road Shows, Vol. 1. Or how about other great, still-thriving saxophonists, like Wayne Shorter, James Moody, or Phil Woods, to name just a few other older players of that instrument?

Why not Terence Blanchard? In addition to his superb work as a trumpeter and bandleader, he is a gifted composer of film scores, and he serves as artistic director of the college program at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, now based in his hometown, New Orleans. Hancock is the institute’s chairman.

This is a very short list of jazz artists who would make great assets to your forthcoming festivities. Choosing any of these musicians to play your inauguration concerts  would demonstrate that your support for jazz is more than just lip service.

For more good ideas, you can turn to the two polls — readers and critics — annually published in Down Beat magazine, or the awards annually bestowed by the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA).

So, President-Elect Obama, or, if I may, Barry: There’s still time to invite world-class jazz musicians to play your inauguration concerts.

Need help programming great jazz, or booking some of these artists? If you can’t rely on your own team, you know, give me a call.

Better yet, contact some of the great jazz musicians I’ve mentioned. Or make a connection with the editors of Down Beat or Jazz Times or Jazziz. Or consult the jazz writer Stanley Crouch, who made some similar points in a Dec. 21 column.

Yes, you can. Yes, you can make this happen – you’re the next leader of the free world.

What’s stopping you?