With the departure of vibraphonist Stefon Harris, SFJAZZ Collective is the leanest it's ever been. Nevertheless, the seven current members appear to be thriving. The group has finally identified itself as more than just a repertory band. Its 2009 concert tour followed the usual formula, with everyone arranging one piece by a famous composer (McCoy Tyner) and providing one piece of their own. The resulting live record has some fabulous interpretations, including a smoky version of Tyner's 1961 ballad "Aisha" by tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano. Even better is a risky coupling of the Tyner songs "Indo-Serenade" and "Parody" by trombonist Robin Eubanks. Still, it's the original material that makes this album shine.
It could be the juxtaposition of generations that makes SFJAZZ Collective interesting, since it's cool to see an elder statesman like Lovano paired with a young musician like Harland. It could also be its new sense of buoyancy. Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón won a MacArthur fellowship last year, and they're obviously pleased with the Obama victory. (The two most infectious pieces are Eubanks' "Yes We Can — Victory Dance" and "Yup, We Did" by bassist Matt Penman). But there's a greater willingness to experiment. From Lovano's aptly-titled "Jazz Free" to Harland's "E-Collective," to the harmonic complexity of "Migrations" by Renee Rosnes, this album is deeper, more thoughtful, and more varied than any of the group's previous work. It's the result of seven imaginations that keep growing.