The Collective Wisdom of SF Jazz

Bay Area ensemble returned to San Diego for an evening of highlights

Daniel Atkinson and the folks at Athenaeum Jazz at the Scripps Research Institute scored another home run on Oct. 8, when the organization hosted a standing-room-only appearance by the SF Jazz Collective, an all-star octet featuring some of the hottest improvisers in modern music. As if that weren’t enough, the ensemble’s evening was dedicated to the enduring legacy of the iconic Miles Davis.

The SF Jazz Collective features Miguel Zenón and David Sánchez on saxophones, Sean Jones on trumpet, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Edward Simon on piano, Warren Wolf on vibraphone, Matt Penman on bass and Obed Calvaire on the drum kit.

The four-horn lineup activated swirling textures to launch into “Teo,” as Jones proved to be a patient and fascinating storyteller, very much in the spirit of Miles himself, concentrating on tone and ideas over the roiling percussion of Calvaire, who was not served well by the hall’s usually unimpeachable acoustics.

That sense of kaleidoscopic harmony carried on with the group’s arrangement of “Milestones,” with Sánchez staking his claim first with a robust tone while the others riffed in support. Eubanks was next, striking a keen balance between notey precision and blustery swagger, reminding me of why he is one of my favorite progenitors of the slide trombone.

Not all of the night was devoted to the Miles canon. Simon unveiled a rhythm-heavy original, “Feel the Groove,” which toggled between serpentine melodic motifs and multiple unison stabs on a single chord, which Zenón and the composer each attacked with palpable glee.

The group’s ease with just the right tempo came to the fore on a gorgeous reading of “So Near, So Far,” which soared upon the organic pulse of Penman, whose sound seemed a little muddy on this night. Sánchez filled the auditorium with bristling ideas, and Wolf nearly stole the entire show with a dramatic mallet flurry that swung like a well-oiled hinge.

Eubanks incited an audience finger snap on 2 and 4 to set up his original “Shields Green,” which featured Simon’s gauzy chords on the electric piano. Eubanks utilized the entire range of the instrument with a wonderful solo followed closely by a round-robin series from Zenón, Jones, Wolf and Sánchez, each extrapolating portions of its attractive, multi-layered theme.

Zenón led off “Nardis” a cappella with a hushed and honeyed tone, and when all the horns entered it was with decidedly determined emphasis on the Phrygian-dominant and other exotic scales and an off-the-hook Wolf essay that traded 8s with the drums in violent aggression.

After receiving considerable applause, the group returned for an encore, Sánchez’s slinky modal groove “Canto,” which basked in the slow simmer of Penman’s vamp and a superb solo from the composer’s tenor saxophone -- easily the highlight moment for me in a concert full of highlight moments.

Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years. Follow him on Twitter @robertbushjazz. Visit The World According to Rob.

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