“Armageddon” may not sound like a very auspicious beginning to an evening, but when the “Armageddon” in question is Wayne Shorter’s 1964 composition of that name, the arranger is Dave Douglas, and the group is the 2008 edition of the SFJAZZ Collective, things are off to a good start. Stepping up to perform a kind of benediction of the night to come, Douglas’s opening solo showed the soul, sound, and range that has made him among the most influential trumpet voices of his generation. With the horn tilted slightly up, his tone was relaxed and fluid, and every phrase was consciously textured with micro-smears and subliminal vocalese. The effect on the octet was galvanizing, and rather than feeling like the bar had been set high in a cutting contest, the band responded by assuming collective responsibility for the directness and integrity of the music to come.
The next number was a Joe Lovano original, “This, That, and the Other,” that began with what sounded like a familiar bebop head before veering off into uncharted territory, with the whole band eventually coming back together for one of the night’s most memorable unison builds to crescendo. Lovano, who looked very neo-Beatnik with his beard and shades, tore through the changes on this number twice, first on tenor, and then again on soprano. Bassist Matt Penman swung hard and sounded suitably grand when the tune shifted into a walking blues. Vibraphonist Stefon Harris offered something called “The Road to Dharma” that was full of expansive, unexpected chords and modal harmonies. The octet took full advantage of this opportunity to sound like singers in a choir.
Renee Rosnes showed why she is the recipient of the SFJAZZ Solo Spotlight Residency this year with her enchanting “Angel’s Share.” Drummer Eric Harland took things in an entirely unexpected direction when he launched into his “The Year of 2008,” which included a prerecorded digital soundtrack of Harland reciting an original poem that revised the Declaration of Independence, then a series of solfege vocal improvisations. The piece got less predictable from there and offered an outstanding spotlight for Harris on the vibes.
A sparkling arrangement of Shorter’s “Black Niles” penned by trombonist Robin Eubanks gave alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon plenty of room, and called forth enough applause to get the whole crew back for an encore, Dave Douglas’s composition “Secrets of the Code.”