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The SFJAZZ Collective: this ensemble is comprised of some of the finest jazz players/composers in the field today. They hail from several cultures – Israel, New Zealand, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico, as well as the mainland US. The eight members of the Collective, under the auspices of the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco, are recruited on an ad hoc basis to conduct workshops, compose, and perform at the Center as well as undertake annual tours and recordings to perform their repertoire. Each year they pay tribute to one of many renowned composers including Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Horace Silver, Stevie Wonder, Chick Corea, and others. This year the Collective has chosen to highlight the work of the late saxophonist Joe Henderson, who had connections to the Triangle, having spent some time at NCCU in Durham in the 1970s and performing a memorable concert at NCSU in 1994.
In fact, there were three pieces composed by Joe Henderson in this concert, and four were original works composed and arranged by members of the group. Unfortunately the trumpeter, Avishai Cohen, could not make the engagement due to a family emergency in Israel. His absence did not appear adversely to affect the musicality of the band, rather at times the lack of a brassy punch at the high end pitch during the ensemble playing was sometimes missing. Not to worry – it was amply compensated for by the masterful creativity in the horn section of the two saxophones (Miguel Zenón on alto and David Sanchez on tenor) and Robin Eubanks on trombone, who also arranged Henderson's piece "Black Narcissus".
The cohesion of the Collective was superb, even during pieces that contained "free" sections that departed from an established melody. At one point, Eubanks modestly observed that the Collective is highly synergetic; he has a point – and it's very constructive. It must be noted that the band used only acoustic instruments, i.e. no electronics. This was all the more remarkable since pieces like the aptly named Synthesis of the Band in three parts by Miguel Zenón contained jazz-rock segments that might conventionally employ an electric bass and loud drums! They didn't, and they still managed to swing as "swingingly" as on the straight-ahead portions. The band exhibited impressive dynamics throughout the concert and was thus able to convey the more subtle meanings of the compositions. For example, this enabled the drummer (Obed Calvaire) to use his instrument(s) in a more melodic and complementary way than one usually finds in this type of group; interestingly Calvaire's composition piece was a haunting ballad he called "Absolution" that at times evoked the memory of the Charles Mingus classic elegy for saxophonist Lester Young, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat". His melodic aptitude was no more apparent than on bassist Matt Penman's composition "Afro Centric," a swinging polyrhythmic piece in a combination of 4/4 and 6/8 time signatures featuring trombonist Robin Eubanks (audiences might remember his frequent appearances on the Jay Leno Tonight show with his bandleader brother guitarist Kevin Eubanks); this piece was an exercise in highly effective dynamics between the rhythm section and horns. The most complex piece was composed by pianist Edward Simon. It was a highly orchestrated work that must have involved many hours of rehearsal and, in his own words, "was very stressful"; this definitely came across, not in the playing but in the content. Throughout the performance, the role of the vibraphonist Warren Wolf may not have appeared as crucial as it was; he basically provided the percussive (and harmonic) coloration to the whole ensemble.
The final piece – a composition by Joe Henderson titled "Jinrikisha" (of which the English translation is "Rickshaw") – was a multifaceted "ride" that transited between a jazz-rock beginning to a Latin rhythm to Swing to hard Bebop and featured a soaring alto sax solo from Zenón, a harmonically intricate piano solo from Simon, and was highlighted by an exquisitely executed and melodic drum solo from Calvaire. It was a fitting conclusion to this extraordinary concert. Let us hope that longtime Center Stage Director Sharon Moore and her team continue to have the vision and foresight to persist in attracting innovative and exciting top notch performers such as the SF JAZZ Collective to NCSU. It reflects well on the whole performing arts scene in Raleigh.