The SFJAZZ Collective has spent the last seven years repeating the same message: "Tributes to genre icons don't have to be treated like High Mass at the Vatican." This year‚ SFJAZZ did two things that'll really get up the hardliner's noses: Recording their best outing to date just three miles from Wynton Marsalis' tunnel-visioned fiefdom Jazz @ Lincoln Center‚ and having the temerity to honor someone with NO ASSOCIATION TO JAZZ WHATSOEVER!
Well‚ that's not completely true. From the time he broke out of Berry Gordy's iron fist and started doing his own thing‚ Stevie Wonder's musical influences ranged far beyond the soulful-but-sanitized confines of Hitsville USA‚ and jazz was one of those influences. The original version of "Do I Do" features no less a jazz idol than John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie‚ and Season 8 opens with Wonder's loving tribute to Edward Kennedy Ellington‚ "Sir Duke." SFJAZZ' take not only sets the tone for the epic 3-disc set‚ but it also lets loose the most chance-taking line-up in Collective history.
There is no sense that the opener is one of Wonder's biggest hits until vibes monster Stefon Harris steps into the clear and plays a single lick from the original‚ making someone in the crowd go‚ "Yeah!" Then bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland get behind Harris while SFJAZZ' mammoth front line build and build on that lick‚ taking time to swat cracking solo lines back and forth‚ until the whole band busts out the original's joyous horn-centric hook. That only lasts a moment‚ though‚ because there's plenty more to explore in trumpeter Avishai Cohen's labyrinthine arrangement‚ including a wild closing section that mixes Wonder's singular funk aesthetic with a head-banging backbeat that lets drummer Eric Harland go super big.
Fortunately‚ Season 8 isn't all about deconstruction. Pianist Edward Simon keeps the deep sense of romance inherent in "My Cherie Amour" while finding places for the group to expand and extend their remarks‚ and there's a smoky air of conspiracy to altoist/MacArthur Genius Miguel Zenon's pretty-much-faithful workup of crowd favorite "Superstition." What might make even SFJAZZ devotees break out in flop-sweat is Cohen playing his trumpet through an effects box‚ most notably on Harland's heavyweight take on "Do I Do." You can just hear Marsalis wailing‚ "What would Dizzy think?!" That said‚ the space-age sound is perfectly in keeping with Wonder's use of synthesizer in many of his '70s-era hits. So while the Collective may not be staying completely true to all of Wonder's songs‚ they are surely keeping faith with his spirit.
As usual‚ each Collective member has contributed a piece inspired by their "guest of honor": Penman's "The Economy" seethes with the anger that's literally occupying this country; tenorman Mark Turner's hypnotic "Orpheus" is as minimalist as SFJAZZ has ever gotten; and Robin Eubanks' "Metronome" spirals in and out in surges of color and light. But in the end‚ it's all about Wonder‚ and that's as it should be. Season 8 gets points for not relying on Wonder's hits‚ giving equal love to deep album cuts like "Creepin'" and "Race Babbling." Most importantly‚ this iteration of SFJAZZ Collective gets major points for separating themselves from past lineups and making their own case for how their business should be done.