Saxophonist Joshua Redman’s recent signing to Nonesuch seems like a smart move, at least in theory. After garnering much media attention upon the release of his first few records in the early 1990s, Redman’s career never reached the heights it appeared to be destined for back when he racked up a new release each year (if not two) and brought his jazz quartet to rock clubs across the U.S. Chalk it up to jazz economics, style over substance, or any myriad of excuses, but the fact remains that Redman’s case is one of promise unfulfilled. So what better way to mark a new direction by moving from Warner Bros. to Nonesuch (a Warner Bros. subsidiary, but we’ll let that go for now)—the NPR-friendly home to such luminaries as Bill Frisell, Ry Cooder, Pat Metheny, and Brad Mehldau?
As a companion release to Momentum by Redman’s Elastic (read: “electric”) Band, the pink, purple, and green fluorescent swirls of SFJazz Collective‘s packaging make a bit more sense than they might to the uninitiated consumer—perhaps a way to present this all-acoustic octet with the same degree of hipness that the Flea, Me’Shell NdegéOcello, and ?uestlove cameos lend to Momentum. Unfortunately, all it takes is one listen to expose the situation for what it truly is: a desperate attempt on Nonesuch’s behalf to inject some excitement into this release, because the music is unsalvageably boring.
And speaking of truth in advertising, even the idea of this group being the SFJazz Collective is suspect, little more than a hollow marketing ploy that asks jazz aficionados to ignore the fact that more than half of the band currently resides at the opposite end of the country. Artistic director Redman and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson are the only two members with any tangible ties to the Bay Area; trumpeter Nicholas Payton, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, trombonist Josh Roseman, pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Robert Hurst, and drummer Brian Blade round out the group with a geographically diverse range of all-star caliber talent.
Indeed, to its credit, the Collective’s egalitarianism in the often egocentric world of mainstream jazz is impressive, as the record allows a composition each for Zenón, Rosnes, Redman, and Hutcherson, balanced out with three very modern arrangements of Ornette Coleman compositions. But impressive as though it may be, it’s when the soloists are left to their own devices that the music becomes even remotely engaging; as far as the original compositions go, there’s little to break the textbook ennui that permeates the recording. Brief moments of instrumental fire notwithstanding, the entire proceedings are hindered by a distinct lack of edge—amplified by the cavernous concert hall sound—resulting in what might be described as overly intellectualized elevator music.
Though not as stiff as the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra’s recent take on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, guest arranger Gil Goldstein’s treatments of Coleman’s “Peace”, “When Will the Blues Leave”, and “Una Muy Bonita” are similarly over-stylized, replacing Coleman’s highly individual sense of fluidity with a far too stringent formality. The arrangements are interesting on a purely technical level, but overall it’s an academic idea of what Coleman’s music is supposed to sound like that sacrifices all of its intrinsic energy and surprise in the process. Again, fleeting moments of instrumental prowess—such as Payton offering up his best Don Cherryisms on “When Will the Blues Leave” or Redman’s soprano bouncing along with Hurst and Hutcherson’s pliant groove on “Una Muy Bonita”—liven up the arrangements to a certain extent, but, as with the group’s original compositions, the end product rarely transcends blandness.
Even more so in the jazz world, “all-star” projects like this have an inherent tendency to fall short of expectations; and while it’s nice to hear that Hutcherson is still in top form in his mid-‘60s, beyond the occasionally inspired solo SFJazz Collective is about as disappointing as they get. Yes, let it be clear that this is no jazz equivalent of the Wu-Tang Clan, coming together like Voltron to rescue the music from its infinitesimal market share—by substituting reams of sheet music for simple intuition, Redman and company relegate an exciting prospect to the annals of failed experiments in mainstream jazz.