Saturday, March 17, 2007

A Jazz Composers Collective

If you'll forgive me for stepping outside of my primary area of expertise (such as it is), I'd like to talk a bit about jazz. On March 15, under the auspices of UA Presents, the SFJAZZ Collective came to Tucson, including Dave Douglas on trumpet. I've followed Douglas at a distance for some time because of his association with John Zorn, with whom he played in Masada. I've also got a couple of albums with Douglas as a leader, and have consistently found him to be an interesting composer, arranger, and performer. This group was of the same consistently high quality that I have heard with some of his other projects. However, the rest of the performers were all new to me (you'll see now to what extent I don't follow jazz): Joshua Redman on tenor and soprano sax, Miguel Zenón on alto, Andre Hayward on trombone, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Renee Rosnes on piano, Matt Penman on bass, and Eric Harland on drums.

The Collective gathers for a few weeks each year, where they choose a modern jazz composer to investigate, along with preparing their own compositions. Last year they played Herbie Hancock's compositions, and this year they chose Thelonius Monk. The group played for nearly two hours without an intermission (including one encore), and of the ten pieces, six were by Monk. I didn't catch one of the titles, but the other five were Brilliant Corners, Ugly Beauty, San Francisco Holiday, Oscar T., and Bright Mississippi. The compositions by the group were a three-part San Francisco Suite by Dave Douglas, Peace Offering by Andre Hayward, Union by Eric Harland, and a piece whose title I didn't catch by Matt Penman. The Collective takes jazz composition seriously. Considerably more than simply heads and solos, these were detailed and complex pieces.

One of the characteristics of the arrangements that really impressed me was the variety of voicing that the group achieved. During Ugly Beauty, the melody statement was passed around from one horn to the next, where the last few notes of each phrase were overlapped simultaneously by two horns as the melody was passed, but most of the melody was performed by one solo instrument or another. Throughout the performance, the number of different instrumental combinations was a measure of the arrangements' ingenuity. A common device was for a soloist to be joined by members of the ensemble around the midway point, at first with short chordal interjections, to a fuller texture by the end of the solo. Hutcherson had a great solo going on Oscar T., a wonderful blues song named for the great Cincinnati jazz poet and DJ, Oscar Treadwell. By the end of his solo he was undiminished but nearly inundated by the horn section — great stuff! Redman and Hayward got the same treatment on San Francisco Holiday and Brilliant Corners. The group played closely from music for every piece. While score reading in jazz concerts is unusual in my experience, it gave the performance a sense of a high-wire act and imparted an urgency and excitement to the performance. I get the same frisson from seeing classical chamber musicians play from a score, some kind of imagined performance anxiety.

I have a couple of Thelonius Monk albums (one on the iPod) and the great Hal Willner tribute That's The Way I Feel Now (ditto), so I had some awareness of Monk's music before this concert. But as great as the Monk arrangements were, for me the musical highlight was the new compositions. The first new composition presented was Douglas's San Francisco Suite. Its three movements (Alcatraz, Amoeba, and Assisi, after three great San Francisco landmarks) followed a fast-slow-fast pattern overall and featured outstanding ensemble writing. Penman's composition (perhaps Hospice? I didn't hear the title clearly) opened with a vibes solo, then to a vamp with the a duet between the piano and the trumpet. Then, Zenón gave his most impassioned solo of the evening before a short drum solo concluded the impressive piece. Peace Offering was the only tune where Redman played soprano sax, and he wove around the other horns with a delicate filagree of melody. Union had a beautiful long passage for the two saxes without any other accompaniment, keeping a steady, almost minimalist rhythm, and was a great closing piece for the program.

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