Jazz Evangelists Borrow Some of Stevie Wonder’s Cool

04.01.12
The New York Times

By Ben Ratliff

It says a lot about SFJazz, the San Francisco-based organization, that its house band would make a project out of the music of Stevie Wonder. Not that jazz musicians haven’t long since gotten to Stevie Wonder as material: plenty have, from tentative, cred-building, bell-bottomed experiments by Ella Fitzgerald and Woody Herman, to newer and deeper versions of his songs by Marcus Strickland and Vijay Iyer. It’s that Mr. Wonder’s music is generally not part of an official representation of jazz, the kind of thing put forth by a performing-arts institution like SFJazz.

But SFJazz’s basic position, in its Bay Area concert productions and its work with the touring, recording eight-piece SFJazz Collective, seems to be about blending, transforming, expanding: spreading out rather than shoring up. The organization put the band together in 2004, regularly swapping out its members. To create a touring repertory, each year SFJazz has commissioned from members of the collective an original piece and an arrangement of the jazz eminence under the microscope at the time. The eminences thus far have included Coltrane, Monk and Herbie Hancock; this year, it’s Stevie Wonder.

The collective has been on tour for a month, performing in concert halls, and in New York it’s playing eight sets in four nights at the Jazz Standard. The hourlong late set on Thursday, its first night, wasn’t the greatest SFJazz Collective program I’ve ever seen, but then it was shorter than what I’ve usually seen. It was, however, typical in the good sense. It represented SFJazz’s philosophy.

The set split itself evenly between originals and Stevie Wonder songs. Of the covers, the best arrangements were “Visions,” by the vibraphonist Stefon Harris, and “My Cherie Amour,” by the pianist Edward Simon. Each cracked the song open, shuttling it through different time signatures — often based on Mr. Wonder’s vocal phrasing — and building new tensions between riffs and solos. They were also extremely sensitive with rhythm, from Mr. Harris’s locomotive hammering that ran like an I-beam through his piece, to the flowing polymetric craziness in Mr. Simon’s.

You can propose various definitions for what this band represents, but it’s a superbrain for what serious jazz sounds like now. In the last 15 years or so, Mr. Simon and the alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón have helped create a new kind of Afro-Latin jazz, and the trumpeter Avishai Cohen and the saxophonist Mark Turner have established a new kind of soloistic virtuosity. The bassist Matt Penman and the drummer Eric Harland have been supreme generalists, playing all over the place. And for twice as long, since the early 1980s, the trombonist Robin Eubanks has worked funk and odd meters into the mainstream language in ways that still sound current. They’re all serious composers; what they do is going to be good.

Of the originals, I liked the threshing, machinelike “Metronome,” by Mr. Eubanks, and Mr. Harland’s cool, rustling and expanding “Eminence,” with Mr. Turner playing a flowing solo that started in an analytical mode and pushed toward a rapturous one.

But there remains the question of whether you can out-arrange Stevie Wonder, who — at least during the mid-’70s, the period from which most of the band’s choices came — had fantastically elastic and natural conceptions of harmony, rhythm and tune. It’s not a fair question; building on other work is what jazz musicians do. But it’s an inevitable one. At worst, the SFJazz Collective’s work felt a little overdetermined, a little underintuitive. But only a little.