SFJazz Collective

Cabaret Jazz room at The Smith Center, March 17

31712sfjazzsmithkabik-13.jpgThey began with a gang. Not, unfortunately, with a bang.

Selected to symbolically smash a champagne bottle across the bow of Las Vegas’ swanky new swing spot, the eight-piece SFJAZZ Collective provided an evening that was so … polite.

Make that flat.

True, this is a performing arts center, not a boozy dive. True, the Collective is a collection of fine musicians with an impeccable sound, but a questionable choice to kick open this ballyhooed new jazz headquarters. Any of the acts booked to follow—Barbara Cook, Andrea Marcovicci, Clint Holmes, Branford Marsalis, Al Jarreau and Ramsey Lewis—would have been preferable. Was this choice meant to impress the jazz cognoscenti to legitimize the new room? If so, it left mere fans behind.

Each season, SFJAZZ selects one notable, modern jazz composer to honor (such as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock) in performances, interspersed with members’ original pieces. In a departure, this season‘s pick is Stevie Wonder. However, anyone expecting a Wonder-full night had to settle for interminable interpretations that fleetingly quoted bits and riffs of “My Cherie Amour,” “Sir Duke,” “Visions” and “Blame It on the Sun.”

You could sense the subdued crowd waiting, hoping, craving more than just a sip of Stevie. While Wonder’s music shouts with joy, the Collective whispered its respect.

Mostly, the band’s style was Juilliard-style scholarly, with languorous, self-indulgent solos that would likely earn them an “A” in technique but couldn’t generate enough energy to power the kitchen coffee pots (which might explain the lukewarm $3 coffee).

Mostly personality-challenged, the members—who trudged onstage in silence—took turns addressing patrons. Only vibraphonist Stefon Harris showed a spark of friendliness, as well as using his four-mallet solos to inject lush warmth into a performance that otherwise wasn’t cool, just cold. ★★☆☆☆

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